The Godfather

The Godfather ★★★★★

Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling crime saga is the definitive movie about taking over the family business because it elegantly builds off of nearly-universal truths about both family and business from a hyper-masculinized perspective. It fixates on the anxiety of unavoidably becoming your own father, the fear of letting down your family by forging your own path, the transformatively healing effect of reconnecting with your roots, and the cutthroat selfishness necessary to maintain power. And by repeatedly insisting on the distinction between personal and business matters, it ironically reveals the messy, inextricable ties between the two — not just in the crime world, but in any system driven by the expansion of power and profit. Everything is personal, and everything is business.

Coppola’s style here achieves a nearly-unparalleled union of broad appeal and poetic sensibility. He and his team fill the film with gorgeous framing, richly detailed mise-en-scene, and countless moments of literary symbolism — and any viewer can feel the effects of these strengths without needing to specifically identify or fully comprehend them.

For example, the film cloaks its titular patriarch in darkness and fills the frame with his body to make him seem as physically imposing as possible in business dealings, yet by the film’s conclusion, he’s lit softly, revealing Marlon Brando’s endlessly emotive eyes and fixating on the features that make him seem frailest. Meanwhile, Michael gradually looks more and more like his dad as the film progresses, until he’s given a similarly intimidating posture by the finale. It’s a simple trick that’s been noted by millions before me, yet remains tremendously effective — and there are a thousand similar but subtler artistic choices that elevate the film to its legendary status. 

I don’t think this is necessarily a flawless movie — on this rewatch, Michael’s transition somehow feels rushed and underwritten despite the three-hour runtime, and certain time jumps seem somewhat clunky. But the strength of its sheer artistry — its magnificent direction, rich period detail, perfect cast, haunting music, and densely layered screenplay — make it an undeniable all-time great.

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