Benjamin Zweifach’s review published on Letterboxd:
“I believe in America.”
And I believe with all my heart that—particularly if you combine The Godfather Parts I and II as one epic—it is the greatest American film ever made. The rare ice cold/“basic” mainstream CW type take that is completely accurate.
This is a subjective claim, but here are some of the reasons why.
Let’s set aside how extraordinary this cast is—arguably among the greatest ever assembled. (You could credibly argue Part I features not one but TWO of the four of five greatest lead screen performances ever. How many other times has the Best Supporting Oscar category had 3 nominees from the same movie (both Part I and II, for a total of 6), all deserving, and Cazale, whose portrayal of Fredo is, in my view, the saddest supporting performance in cinema, was never even nominated!) Let’s set aside the conditions under which Coppola was working—-he was adapting essentially a pulpy B-level book, no great work of literature, and shooting scenes out of order to try to show the studio enough exciting material to avoid getting fired. Let’s set aside how groundbreaking the cinematography and lighting of Gordon Willis is—-so dark that it is almost sepia toned, but not quite....just enough to evoke romanticism and amber nostalgia and depart from the raw realism that would make mafia activities too disturbing to identify with...but this is no glorification....pools of light and shadow reflect the moral ambiguities in which our characters retreat in and out of, and mostly we see the protagonists surrounded in darkness.
Let’s set aside the TYPE of film Coppola was making out of what had previously been limited to James Cagney-style campy genre pictures...check out any mobster movies before The Godfather and it’s unbelievable his vision of the film even occurred to him. Let’s set aside that a movie about CRIME might be the greatest American film about the immigrant experience in America or the greatest film about 20th century capitalism in this country, and the way the leaders of a profitable business turn away from the grisly consequences of their misdeeds and the collateral damage so that they and their families may rise in America.
Let’s set aside all of that, and talk only about structure, and how magnificently Coppola builds this film. It’s such a masterpiece of form that everything important you need to know is in the first scene, like an extraordinary symphony overture.
Another reviewer from this site, Aaron, puts it perfectly: “From the outset, Francis Ford Coppola immerses the audience in a world of darkness. The iconic theme—haunting, vaguely ethnic, vaguely mournful—segues to a blackened room—minimal lighting, dark wood paneling, spotty amber pools of illumination. It is a world of back-room bargaining and illicit dealings, but it is also a world of family and ritual and tradition. Power and the American dream and the legacy one leaves for one’s children and the lengths to which one will go to preserve one's family—they are age-old themes, the subject of countless artistic works.”
As I’ve noted, the first lines we hear are “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” Consider the lines. Morality and values and principles are absent...he believes in the country because of economic opportunity. That’s it. Bonasera is an undertaker. His fortune has been made from death. Death and profit are thus announced at the outset. Violence is the Corleone’s business, their route to advancement in this country.
Coppola slowly, ever so slowly almost to be imperceptible, pulls his camera from an extreme close-up to a Kubrickian reverse zoom, that opens back until you see the outline of the figure seated, listening patiently: Don Vito (Brando)—-this camerawork will becomes critical later. He is stroking a cat. There is a gentleness and patience to him. In compensation for a grisly act, he essentially emphasizes connection, friendship, with Bonasera, and embraces him.
We know everything there is to know about Brando’s character right then. He accepts violence as the cost of doing business. He is transactional, but also a social leader, political almost. He is empathetic. He is strategic, calculating, respected, yet there is a softness—a softness that perhaps might be exploited. This is a criminal, yes, but somehow a criminal with very human qualities and a soul. The fact that Coppola achieves this surrounding the character in blackest darkness is a testament to both him and Brando.
Connie (Talia Shire), the only daughter of Don Vito (Brando), is getting married. It is an Altmaneaque, expansive ensemble scene in the sunshine outside, as the camera moves a bit casually throughout the crowd. We see here the dramatic contrast in the hermetically sealed inner sanctum of darkness inside the Don’s office, where terrifying business is conducted, and the blinding light of celebration outside, the juxtaposition of the appearance of legitimacy that the Corleones crave—the siren song chased by Michael from beginning to end—with the true, inescapable reality of the family’s business, it’s beating heart is darkness. The scene is an almost geographical metaphor for the entire epic.
And in this wedding scene, we acquire an almost impossibly comprehensive, accurate sense of the main characters. Sonny (James Caan), the eldest son, has a temper, and cheats on his wife. He is ruled by passions, unable to control them. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the family’s adopted son, is of the family, but also not quite part of it—not ethnically Italian, but Italian in his values, a creature who, like all lawyers, exists in a kind of legal purgatory....transitioning between the dark office and criminal world and the sunny outer area of the law, navigating the divide to bring messages from the Don to the family members. He is a kind of human membrane for the Corleones in the world. He is quiet and reserved and logical, passing in and out of the house and navigating moral shadows and ambiguities.
Fredo (John Cazale), the middle son, is the pathetic one: dim, drunk, powerless, useless, but basically, at the outset, full of love, as he is the only true family member to come over to Michael to welcome him home and embrace him. The one exception: he refers to Michael as his “kid brother” to Kay. The insecurity and bitterness is there immediately, under the surface. Coppola sets up Fredo’s tragedy from the jump.
Even minor characters’ fates are foreshadows. Paulie, one of the family's lower level soldiers, impressionable, susceptible to being flipped with compensation, as his greedy eyes follow Connie’s wedding purse. He will eventually be bought and betray the family. Luca Brasi, a Corleone enforcer, is an idiot, loyal to a fault, but awkward. He will be outwitted in a trap and killed within the hour.
Then we see the youngest son Michael (Pacino). He is alone. Always alone, as he will end Part II and and his life. He seems to be separated from the family business, and claims he wants nothing to do with it. He is a war hero, the clever one whose eyes are open to the family and its essence. He narrates the situation as an omniscient narrator might narrate a novel. He explains the evil of the Corleones to his WASP girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), who is the closest thing to an audience proxy in this first scene....and so Coppola cleverly places the viewer close to Michael’s point of view, but not so close that we can’t observe his descent into a chilling monster later on. We watch The Godfather from over his shoulder.
There is an unmistakable trace of shadow on Michael’s face as he sits at the table with Keaton. He thinks of himself as morally righteous, disgusted with the mafia, and the one who has moved on—and we’ll learn, the brilliant son that Vito WANTED to move on into purely legitimate endeavors—and yet he doesn’t look fully happy or satisfied with his choice. We sense conflict, unease, in Pacino’s perfectly calibrated performance. Perhaps he doesn’t belong in this world, but he’s still there, and he describes acts of unspeakable evil in a detached, even tone that is—-well—-disturbing. This is a person capable of thinking and planning and speaking of terror while divorced from the emotion and morality of it. We can see it immediately. He may not be currently involved, but his manner** is cold blooded from the start.
Even in the casual moments, watch the tiniest details Coppola shows us, and how efficiently the family’s status is filled in for us within minutes in one scene: Reporters take photos of license plates (the Corleones are not stealthy—they’re established criminals, on the radar of the authorities and media); Sonny then smashes a reporter’s camera (he can’t control his temper); but Sonny drops cash to pay for the camera like it’s nothing (he immediately regrets it, suggesting he not only lacks judgment and is reckless, he doesn’t even have the slightest impulse control, AND that the family is rich.) Don Vito refuses to take the family wedding picture without Michael (family is everything, and Michael is Vito’s prized favorite, the one destined to transcend illegitimacy.) This is absurdly detailed storytelling. Is there anything essential that we don’t know within 15 minutes?
I won’t continue with the next few scenes—but only will note that every scene in the film, every one, is this richly detailed in theme, character, symbolism, almost like a perfectly constructed novel—and at the same time advances the narrative. (Example: Vito’s first brush with death—his assassination—occurs as he is buying fruit, and oranges scatter across the ground around him in the downward angled God’s view camera shot Coppola uses to show his shooting....then, he is vulnerable because he is mistakenly left alone by Fredo; but he doesn’t die. When does he die? This former grocer (in Part II) dies in fruit orchard. But this time it’s chasing his grandson. Symbolism. Foreshadowing. Contrast between isolation and family. Vito departs this life not when he is left alone, but playing with/surrounded by loved ones.....unlike the way his son will leave it.)
Let’s focus on one other critical scene, and how Coppola foreshadows and tied it to the opening one. The critical narrative sequence in Part I is Michael’s visit to the hospital to see his ailing father following the assassination attempt, as he is slowly pulled irrevocably into the family’s wars and takes control...and then the scene when Michael delivers his quiet speech to the family that he will take a meeting and avenge the wrongs committed by Sollozzo and McCluskey. This is the moment Michael accepts his place, and the remainder of the epic’s tragedy becomes inevitable.
The entire movie—the entire Godfather saga—-hinges on a single shot, and it’s set up by the very first shot of the film. Coppola’s camera slowly pushes in on Michael sitting in a chair in his father’s study as he proposes the gambit. The slow zoom is a perfect mirror image of the slow reverse-zoom that framed Brando sitting in the same chair in the opening scene—even the speed of the zoom in/ out is the same. And indeed Michael is in some ways a *mirror reflection* of his father—he is calculating, he is patient, he is strategic, he is transactional—but the two men are not the same. Michael looks for all the world like the new Don, insisting that he is keeping business and personal separate, yet he is conflating them to the point of complete overlap (why, after all, must he be the one to do the hit?), and calmly explaining that this answers all of the family's issues. Yes, Michael has some of his father, but none of his warmth or social grace.
Vito the immigrant came to America alone as a boy, with no family, and naturally depended on the relationships and friendships of others during his rise. He values closeness. Michael grew up the favorite son of a powerful family, and emerged as a rebellious black sheep of sorts. Is it really a coincidence that in that opening scene, Vito stressed respect, connection, and friendship with Bonasera, embracing him...and as Michael sits in the same chair here and Coppola’s cinematography crowns him as heir, Michael is effectively delivering the proposal via soliloquy, a one-way conversation with basically nobody, a proposal in fact that he play the solo assassin and then go into EXILE. This is, at its essence, an announcement that the solution that he begin a life of permanent loneliness.
In the scene with Vito, the the camera is passive, like the Don, who listens to another’s plea patiently, and the scene ends with supplication of Bonasera, yes, but mutuality and humanity. Here, the only times anybody dares answer Michael, he railroads over their objections—nobody comes near him in that central chair. That absence of human connection, literal and figurative, is what separates Pacino’s character him from Brando’s (this becomes most clear in Part II, as Vito builds his reputation in Little Italy with little favors, relationships, and generosity, as when he quietly, graciously, leaves the supermarket he works at. We see him nearly weeping over the cries of baby Fredo’s ill health. He only takes in the Michael-esque lone assassin role during the parade when there is no other way—after which he immediately embraces his young family on the steps of a house, surrounding himself with love, family, and companionship....unlike Michael, who follows his hit by fleeing away from everybody he loves across the ocean.)
Michael transforms in that scene in the office before our eyes—in that shot. For the first time in the movie, he looks comfortable, at ease in his place. This is where he belongs, this is what he was born to do: orchestrating a murder, and we see unleashed the diabolical tyrant his father wanted to place in a senator’s seat, not his own. It’s no wonder then, that Coppola chooses to invert, rather than, repeat, his camera movement. Michael is his father’s son and heir, but not his father.
And through that entire first film, Bonasera pops up again and again. At the wedding. To prepare Sonny’s corpse. At Don Vito’s funeral. Like the Corleones, his trade is death, and it has made him his fortune.
He believes in America...
What are some criticisms of The Godfather that are not insane?
(1) I think the fairest one is that there is no compelling female character in Part I. This is true, as I don’t find Connie or Kay or Apollonia to be fully three dimensional (Connie and especially Kay become much more so in Part II, a basis for those who argue II is superior.) That said, IS it fair, when a film is about a culture and historical world that is, in fact, male-dominated and misogynistic to say it doesn’t have enough realistic, compelling female characters? I think it is fair. Goodfellas, for example, may take place later in the century, but still includes Lorraine Bracco’s iconic performance as Karen. Casino by the same token, includes the extraordinary Sharon Stone performance. It’s not like, for example, a war film (e.g. Coppola’s own Apocalypse Now), where women are literally absent. So yes. That is fair. Noted.
(2) The other, I think, is that it romanticizes an unromantic, grisly word...one that Leone (in Once Upon a Time in America) and Scorsese (in Goodfellas and other films), as well as other directors, have portrayed more honestly. I’m not on board with this. I think these are just two choices about the tone of film you want. The Godfather, unlike some of these other movies, is also a melancholy (but aspirational) tale of immigrant ascendancy and the American Dream, a process of social mobility, that frankly, this country HAS over-romanticized to myth—which is something Coppola is seeking to convey. In addition, its tone is elevated to that of Shakespearean drama, or borderline Homeric poetry. It is far less grounded in realism than Scorsese’s films on purpose, because it is meant to bear a slight hint of theatrical artifice and grand story-telling. It is, as I noted, encased in the thinnest perceptible layer of amber and sepia coloring. Coppola isn’t saying these are wonderful heroes, of course, but tragic figures like King Lear, Macbeth, or Hamlet.