24 April 2005 | BrandtSponseller
For me it isn't "the greatest ever", but it's still great
Marlon Brando is Don Vito Corleone, head of perhaps the most powerful New York-area mafia family in the 1940s, in this well-respected film by director/writer Francis Ford Coppola. As the film begins, Vito is receiving "business" guests in his office at his home while his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding and reception are taking place. The epic plot takes place over many years, telling the story of Vito, his family--including Michael (Al Pacino), Santino (James Caan) and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his associates, and their interactions with other mob syndicates.
The Godfather is commonly considered to be one of the "greatest films of all time". Even though I've given it a 10, I wouldn't put that same kind of exalted emphasis on it. I've given literally thousands of films 10s over the years, and for me, Godfather just barely made a 10. I think it has a number of flaws, but Coppola also has a knack for transcending the problems with some brilliant move or another. At any rate, it is definitely must-see viewing--even if it's only because it's so highly regarded--if you've not experienced the film yet. I think it's a good idea to attain cultural literacy, and films as popularly loved as The Godfather become necessary elements in achieving that literacy.
Shorn of its gangster trappings, The Godfather is sprawling and soap-operatic in tone. The sprawl is appropriate to its origins as a novel by Mario Puzo, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola. There is a large cast of characters--maybe too large, as it can be difficult to keep track of just who everyone is. Even after you've watched the film a couple times you may find scenes where mobsters seem to spontaneously appear and you catch yourself saying, "Wait, who is that guy supposed to be again?" The soap opera angle can be a positive or negative depending on your tastes. I tend to not like soap-operatic stories, but of course Coppola put yummy gangster topping on this one to make it palatable for guys like me. At root, though, The Godfather is concerned with realistic depictions of a very dysfunctional family as they try to make it through life--including marriages, births, adultery, spats between family members, tiffs with others in their community, and so on. My theory is that the soap opera angle accounts for much of the film's appeal. For me, it (and the slight lack of focus from the sprawl) accounts for much of the reason that I barely gave the film a 10.
But two things help the film transcend a lower score for me. Even though the gangster stuff has been far surpassed in graphic brutality in the intervening years, the dramatic context of the violence usually gives it tremendous impact. Films like Ichi the Killer (2001), which I just watched for the first time the night before watching The Godfather again, make the Godfather's brutality fit for Sesame Street in comparison. However, although Ichi's violence is effective, setting that knob to "11" doesn't make it better. Besides, Ichi is so over the top that it would make many Godfather fans want to hurl.
To the extent that Coppola and Puzo just focus on the extended Corleone family, they create tremendous depth in their relationships. The whole film can be looked at as a fascinating depiction of "oscillating" dynamics in the family, with the pole pairs being interacting/distancing, control/lack of control, benevolence/malevolence. Most character stances and actions are some combination of those ranges of characteristics, and everyone dances around the poles, so to speak, throughout the film. From this angle, even the attractive surface violence (well, attractive to us fans of that stuff in artworks) is mainly there for the purpose of pushing characters more to one pole or the other. There is an implication that underlying these mechanisms is some natural tendency towards achieving (a dynamic) equilibrium.
But there are more superficial stylistic factors that help push my score up to a 10, also. The most obvious, which everyone and their grandparents have mentioned, are the performances. It's tough to go wrong when you have a cast including Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, and so on. Another commonly mentioned element that I agree is fantastic and superbly integrated to create atmosphere is Nino Rota's score.
Less often mentioned is the consistently intriguing cinematography by Gordon Willis. Most of Willis' unusual shots in the film are so subtle as to be barely noticeable unless you're looking for them. The opening, for example, consists of a long (it lasts a few minutes) "zoom out" from Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto). The shot is beautifully lit--most of the frame is extremely dark, giving Bonasera a chiaroscuro effect (the opening is also unusual in that it's a long monologue from a minor character).
Willis and Coppola have a knack for placing their actors in the frame to create depth and interesting visual patterns. This is done so slyly that at first blush you wouldn't believe it's something they thought about, but if you keep this in mind while watching, you can see delightful visual paths that zigzag, wind to a focal point, and so on, all created by the confluence of actors and scenery in the frame.
If you haven't seen The Godfather before, the most important thing you can do before watching is to forget about all of the "greatest film of all time" hype. That's only likely to set up expectations that could never be met; more than likely you'll be disappointed. Just think of it as one of the better films from one of Hollywood's more admirable but relatively odder directors, featuring earlier performances from a very well known cast, and keep in mind that it's as much a "historical family saga" as a crime or gangster film.