The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

The Godfather is one of the quintessentially great films, a rite of passage for anyone interested in the medium. It has more cultural cache in the modern world than Citizen Kane, likely because most of the popular film audience has aged out of the 1941 classic. The Godfather remains embedded in the public conscious for the time being, though, and I expect it will stay that way for quite some time. On a personal level, I can confidently say this movie runs through my veins. There really isn't a single moment or gesture in it that feels unfamiliar to me. As a result, it's difficult to evaluate the film with any level of objectivity - but oh well, maybe that's how all my reviews are anyway.

From the very first scene of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola delineates the distinction between interiors and exteriors. There is a stark cinematic contrast between the moody, thoughtful office of the Don and the bright showy wedding going on outside. Nevertheless, both spaces can (and must) exist concurrently, interacting and affecting each other freely. Michael Corleone's struggle in The Godfather is a battle between his interior and his exterior, what he wants to be vs. what he truly is. His acceptance of his fate, a destiny that forces him to become something he hates, forms the best character arc in the history of cinema. As Michael ascends to higher and higher heights of power, he slowly loses the morality that made him what he was. By the end of the film, he has transformed into a cunning, decisive leader, elements he held inside him all along. Watching The Godfather is watching this man develop into a Don. It is Michael's story, through and through, and Pacino carries this performance with incredible grace.

Despite the central focus on Michael, it is really the entire cast that rounds out this brilliant story. The number of big names in this film is astonishing, a cast assembled from the biggest talent available to cinema at the time. Marlon Brando stars as the ancient Don Vito Corleone, and his stately calm gives the film much of its classical sense of character. James Caan is the brash Santino Corleone, brilliantly performed by an actor that rarely gets as much credit as his co-stars in the film. There is also, of course: Robert Duvall as the measured Tom Hagen, John Cazale as the wimpy Fredo, Sterling Hayden as the crooked cop McCluskey, Diane Keaton as Kay Adams (she doesn't get enough screen time in this one unfortunately), and on and on to infinity. There isn't really a weak link in the entire cast, big or small.

The real hero of the film, though, is Coppola himself. You wouldn't think of a three-hour epic like this as being economical, but Coppola directs with such focus and precision that it feels like a much shorter movie than it is. There are no extra scenes, no extraneous dialogue, but still more than enough room to ponder and reflect on the story. Coppola defines relationships by the visual space they live in, both in the set and in the frame. His push-ins raise the bar for tension without ever seeming too obvious. He guides the wonderful performances and lets each of them have their own moment in the sun. Every element of The Godfather is controlled by Coppola. He is the puppeteer, the film is the puppet, and the audience is mesmerized by its movements for three short hours.

Coppola also presides over some of the best cinematography in any film ever made, work done by the great "Prince of Darkness" Gordon Willis. I love Willis' practical lighting choices in the film, often leaving lightbulbs exposed and in the frame to lend extra contrast to an already dynamic frame. He famously lit many scenes from above, giving characters (but especially Vito) a skull-like look that increased their dour presence. Nearly the entire film looks like it was baked in olive oil, Willis soaking every shot in a sepia tone that makes it feel aged but never ancient. There is a freshness to this film that keeps it alive even now, 49 years after its release, and much of that is due to Willis' brilliant work behind the camera.

The music is, of course, stellar. Nino Rota plays on many variations of a few themes, twisting and contorting them to match the will of the scene. The main theme sounds lovely early on, but as the film progresses, it slowly becomes darker and more moody. Rota is yet another master working on this masterpiece, adding an element of dynamic power to an already strong film.

Yes, everyone loves The Godfather, but it's for good reason. It's an excellent piece of cinema, pure and simple. It entertains, it shocks, and it fulfills every wish that I could have for a movie. Yes, I have minor issues with it - the ADR is annoying at times, and there are some shots that are noticeably less-restored than others, but overall this is a pretty faultless film. The story is just so compelling, even after having seen it so many times I still love every moment of it. Rarely are movies this consistently entertaining and impressive. The Godfather really is The Godfather of movies.

Watched on Blu-Ray (Personal collection).