The Godfather (1972)
Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
I would argue that Francis Ford Coppola is the most influential director of the last 20th century, not a giant leap to make, really. He pre-dated the breakout debuts of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma, and more. Coppola also created a type of movie that had been endlessly mimicked and rarely matched. It’s an epic drama focused on characters and their relationships over long periods. Hollywood had been making epics for decades but not like what Coppola brought to the screen in The Godfather. This was also many people’s introduction to the specifics of the mafia. Like epics, Hollywood gave audiences gangster pictures for years but nothing that showcased the family dynamics and the importance of cultural heritage to these criminal organizations. The Godfather really does live up to its hype, unlike anything before.
Starting in 1945, we follow the Corleone family as they weather a gang war that reshapes their lives. Vito (Marlon Brando) is the soft-spoken patriarch of the family who is grooming eldest son Sonny (James Caan) to take over when he passes. Things go south when the Corleones are approached by drug baron Sollozzo who wants them to invest in his heroin trade. Vito sees this as an avenue he doesn’t want to go down and will harm his standing with those in positions of power. After discovering Sollozzo is aligned with his rivals, the Tattaglias, he sends Luca Brasi to spy, pretending he’s thinking of leaving the Corleones. Sollozzo sees through the ruse and sets off the war. Meanwhile, the youngest Corleone, Michael (Al Pacino), freshly returned from his service in World War II, wants to take a more prominent role in the family business.
When you talk about something like The Godfather, you are treading into Shakespearean territory regarding analyzing themes and structure, so I have no expectation that I’ll bring anything new to the surface. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun as hell to break down and talk about elements of this fantastic film. One of the criticisms I’ve seen about the movie over the years is that it romanticizes the mafia. I don’t think this take is entirely wrong as, having seen mafia-related media in the decades that followed, audiences received a much more accurate picture of the brutal violence used to enforce this control. There is violence in The Godfather, but it is often visited upon members of the Corleone family (with whom we’re meant to sympathize) and done by the Corleone family in ways that can be justified in the context of the movie. When compared to depictions of violence in other popular media like The Sopranos or Goodfellas, we can see they provide a much grislier view of this lifestyle.
Outside of the surface-level mafia content, The Godfather is working in classical forms of drama by telling the tragedy of a king and his heirs. There is an expectation that Michael would go on to do “better” things than run the family’s “olive oil” business. Vito expresses that he had hoped Michael might go into politics or some other legitimate career. His reaction when he learns that Michael has committed a murder is one of the best moments of the picture. Vito never cries, but he turns his head, grimacing in heartbreak. The real question is if Michael ever had a chance not to be pulled into the mafia based on how we see it absorb people trying to stay away. The picture opens with people going into debt to Vito for favors, the basic foundation of his stature as a godfather. He’s simply a man to whom many favors are owed, and once you owe him, he owns you.
The Godfather is also Coppola’s personal celebration of Italian culture of a particular time. We see it in the music, food, and language these characters share. Michael travels to Italy to hide out after his killing, and there are given that romanticized glimpse of the “home country.” The pastoral is violently interrupted at one point, a moment that breaks the dream of Michael for the chance at anything beyond what his father does. Our dreams of a simpler way of life are continually interrupted by the world’s harsh realities. This sequence shows Michael embracing an old way of living, courting an Italian woman by appealing to her father. If the character of Apollonia doesn’t seem fully dimensional, that’s intentional; she’s a symbol of Italy and one that Michael cannot have for long.
I love The Godfather because there is so much to analyze. Of course, you have the big obvious things, but it’s the smaller pieces that fascinate me more. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is one of the most exciting people in the story, an Irishman who was informally adopted by Vito as a child. He’s risen to become the consigliere (counselor) to Vito and Sonny, a prominent role for a non-Italian. It’s clear that Tom is an outsider; he is never possibly considered to take over for Vito or Sonny. Duvall does a fantastic job in the role, never allowed to really voice his actual opinion, limited to addressing the business while feeling immense love for people that are his brothers and sisters.
If you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, it is well worth watching. There are a lot of films that get hyped on greatest of all times lists, and not all of them live up to this. The Godfather is not one of them; it is one of those American masterpieces, restrained in ways we don’t often see in modern cinema but still full of life. Coppola doesn’t feel like he’s in any rush and takes his time developing his characters and letting the story unfold steadily. It’s a picture you can get lost inside of, and yet it doesn’t erase the realities of life.