The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

The film starts on Bonasera’s face, visibly in despair. As the camera slowly zooms away, he recounts how his beloved daughter was beaten to within an inch of her life and that her assailants didn’t spend one single day in jail for their crime. By the time he has reached the end of his story, he is begging for the help of the man whose head has now entered the frame. He has listened attentively, sitting on the proverbial throne behind his desk during this audience he has granted his subject. After some thought, he candidly reveals his disappointment. Bonasera has not invited him to his home for a cup of coffee in years. He invokes their friendship, which he has failed to cultivate. When it appears that the reproving Don is disinclined to assist, Bonasera offers him money, so their debt is squared, and the man cannot call upon him for a favor down the line. But Don Vito Corleone still agrees to do him this favor. It’s the day of his daughter’s wedding and even if Bonasera was discourteous and mistook him for a killer for hire, Don Corleone can surely empathize with a father who wants justice against the assholes who attacked his child. After all, he is about to head outside to dance with his own daughter.

“The Godfather” blew the 1970s wide open and set the tone for a decade that jettisoned the whimsical entertainment of the past and served as a mirror for an angry, divided country incensed about the body count amassing in the jungle on the other side of the world. Generally speaking, gangster dramas have extremely limited appeal to me. I rarely find much diversity in this genre. At its core, it’s always the same story: young ambitious hotshot gets dragged into a life of crime, enjoys the perks, gets high, bangs his way around the block and eventually ends up an addict, paranoid and wrecked by the existence he was once so eager to pursue. “The Godfather” is a rare exception because it’s not primarily a film about crime. As the first few minutes make it abundantly clear, this is first and foremost a family saga. The protagonist isn’t the ailing Don, his hotheaded son Sonny or family lawyer Tom Hagen, the only non-Sicilian in the circle of trust. It’s the one son who made a genuine effort to get as far away from the rotten livelihood of his relatives as remotely possible. He loves his parents and siblings, but at the wedding, it’s obvious that he is an outsider, embarrassed even to talk to his girlfriend about the exact nature of the Corleone business. But by the end, when his underlings address him as Don Corleone, it has all come full circle. The prodigal son has returned home and assumed the position as godfather because, at the end of the day, it was his duty. That is the plain moral of the story, masterfully backed up by everything that occurs throughout these three hours: family ALWAYS comes first.

The script, credited to Francis Ford Coppola and author of the novel Mario Puzo, makes use of the opening thirty minutes, one of the best directed and scripted pieces of stage setting in the history of film, to get us acquainted with the principal characters. While Don Corleone holds court in his dimly lit office, his adopted son and family consigliere Tom Hagen sits with him and provides counsel. Throughout the film, we never see Tom with a woman or really get up to anything that does not pertain directly to the Corleone affairs. He is a man of his trade through and through. But what the scene really does is allow resurrected titan Marlon Brando to take charge of a film that isn’t really about him, but over which his persona looms large. People come to the Don because he rewards loyalty and doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way of smart business. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” isn’t just catchy. It’s a punchline, a direct reference to the story Michael told Kay just a few minutes earlier about how his father once solved a problem for his godson when money didn’t get the job done. When Don Vito Corleone assures Johnny Fontane that all his worries will go away with that line, it’s clear what is in store for the unfortunate movie producer who refused to cast him in his latest film.

I won’t bother getting into the weeds of the film. Everyone has seen it (right?) and I’m not arrogant enough to presume that I could add something new to the discourse surrounding a big screen milestone and one of the widely acknowledged finest achievements in American cinema, an assessment I share by the way if that wasn’t already abundantly clear. Weirdly enough, I have seen the original four or five times now, but never made time for either of the sequels, something I intend to remedy over the next few nights. I am intrigued how the follow-up, not rarely considered an even superior effort, could possibly trump this practically flawless fusion of character drama and dark twist on the quintessential American success story. It wholeheartedly embraces its world and the weighty themes that come along with it, not to mention the violence. The body count is staggering. But Don Corleone was always careful not to alienate the wrong people. He stands his ground but hesitates to offend. In the end, he admittedly gets lucky when he survives several bullets to the back, but it’s no coincidence that he ultimately meets his end amongst the tomato vines in his garden playing with his grandson as opposed to with the trigger of a gun being pulled next to his head.

I also love the brief, but vital section in Sicily, and not just because of the love theme that’s been stuck in my head and I’ve been humming practically non-stop for the past day. That short spell of bliss for a man who had to leave his home for an act of violence everyone was shocked he was willing to commit informs his entire transformation from conscientious objector to the family business to vengeful criminal mastermind, who renounces Satan during a baptism just as his underlings are murdering his enemies all over the country. When Appolonia is blown up along with his dreams of a happy life far away from the troubles of his father and siblings, he realizes that there is no escape for him, even halfway around the world. He will always be Michael Corleone, his father’s son and cursed with a name that has forced him into a life of mistrust and bloodshed.

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