The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

The Godfather, for all its general tone of seriousness, does have moments where one can’t help but laugh a little. Sonny’s missed punch at Carlo, Luca Brasi’s practiced recitation of gratitude to Don (plus the insistence that the first child be a masculine child), Apollonia’s honking right after Michael learned his brother Sonny got killed, Woltz’s rant to Tom Hagen, and the Don’s “You can act like a man” — these are a few small pieces that I think work to lighten the otherwise hefty and weighty family drama that is in this movie.

Which brings me to The Godfather as a “family movie.” Most uses of “family film” suggest a G or PG-rated film with a general tone that brings up family, children, and comfort, in some form or another. Usually, “family films” are not violent R-rated gangster epics. But The Godfather is a film about family, and this is brilliantly established in the first minutes, where each of the important characters, from Vito Corleone to his children to the others in this gangster world, are introduced, and their function in the story and the world are clearly shown. This shows how masterful Coppola is in deploying information that will feel relevant to the characters’ developments and the story’s unfolding.

The first few minutes suggest the mixture of darkness, glamour, and warmth that is part of Coppola’s Godfather universe. Yes, there is violence which no person in his or her right mind would want to imitate or emulate, and the moral and artistic arc of the series show the deadly and weighty consequences of the Corleone family’s crime. But I cannot help but feel that the “glamor” of the world is part of the point; there would likely be something genuinely glamorous, such as the family and all the festivity that seems to be part of this Italian-American world. Which makes the criminality all the more devious.

To elaborate on the “glamorization” of the Mafia that some people attribute to The Godfather, this feel might be evoked through Gordon Willis’ dazzling cinematography, with its elegant mixture of light and dark, the “sunny” feel of the Sicily scenes, the “classical” tenor of the film’s visual and dramatic style, and more. But “glamorization” does not quite amount to glorification or vindication of the gangster lifestyle, since I do not find much worthy of vindication, even as the climactic cycle of revenge and bloodshed does have the feel of a measure-for-measure justice meted out by the protagonists, the Corleones, against the antagonists, the Five Families and their henchmen. Yes, Goodfellas does depict the seedier side of gangster lifestyle, and I feel a much sharper sense of distaste for gangster lifestyle in seeing Scorsese’s “rock-and-roll” masterpiece of venial, petty, and senseless murder. Yet The Godfather films seem to me much more sophisticated, for all their “glamorization,” in the deep ethical seriousness that is shown in them.

I must mention how close The Godfather felt to key aspects of the biblical story of King David. Both stories feature an aging patriarch who choose the youngest son to continue their heritage. Both feature threats from outside, with challengers to the dynasty, and from inside, where even old-guard personnel can be counted on no longer. Both feature a fusion of personal and political that is as uncanny as it is bloody. Both end with the consolidation of power that is gained and will be maintained only by the slaughter of opponents. Both are set in deeply religious milieus that cannot be quite extricated from the bloodshed and violence that happen in these worlds. I wonder if Coppola and Puzo were readers of the David story; they may have been, because there is a similarity that I could not help but notice.

All of which is to suggest that The Godfather definitely has a timeless feel that makes it worthy of the term “classic.” Classical and “glamorous” even in its own day, looking back toward Old Hollywood even as it took advantage of New Hollywood’s greater creative freedoms, with dazzling acting from James Cann and John Cazale and Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, exquisite cinematography from Gordon Willis, a rich plot that unfolds with greater and greater drama, and searching treatments of power and violence and sin and family, filled to the brim with lines and quotes that can be used even in casual conversation, The Godfather (as well as its sequel) almost has a universal appeal that goes beyond almost any other Hollywood movie except perhaps Citizen Kane, Titanic, the Lord of the Rings movies, or more. That appeal comes from the fact that it’s such a virtuosic masterpiece that is at once so grand that you feel in awe watching it and so approachable that you cannot help but feel “comfortable” when you watch it (like cinematic comfort food).

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