The Godfather presents the rise, the fall, and the absorption into the American master class of a family named Corleone. Their family fortune, like so many other fortunes, has been made from graft and gambling. We see the terrible Sicilian village they came from, a pile of bones guarded by men with guns. And we see them exiting into another desert, as they go to tend the newborn Las Vegas. Along the way, the family is whittled down by murders which leave behind both the weak and the unbending, who are just as bad as the weak. The warning of their patriarch goes unheard: “A man without a family is not a man.”
At the opening of The Godfather, Don Vito Correleone (Marlon Brando) is receiving friends and associates at his daughters’ wedding day; and in this opening scene, Don Vito is dispensing favors and asking for fealty. He’s a lord in his new country; and his sons are groomed for the succession–he gives them the rules of an aristocrat’s life: To keep your friends close and your enemies closer, to never let anyone outside your family know what you’re thinking.
But Vito hasn’t been able to pass on his best qualities to his sons: Sonny (James Caan) is spoiled, and he doesn’t have Vito’s life-preserving coolness of temper; Fredo (the ill-fated actor John Cazale) is a weakling, and Michael (Al Pacino) is trying to remove himself from the influence of the family, through his status as a war hero, and through his marriage to a good American woman named Kay (Diane Keaton). No doubt Kay’s innocence about the way the world works is part of Michael’s attraction to her. The Godfather‘s real tragedy is how despite his efforts, Michael is sucked back into the way of the Coreleones. By inheriting the family business, Michael Coreleone paradoxically loses his own family and is destroyed.
Michael’s damnation–his insistence on revenge after an insult, and his subsequent exile–is presented as a slow slide, and it’s contrasted with a wealth of details. Coppola could have made a name for himself on any of the passages here, from the wedding scene, to the reception in the shadows of his study–Gordon Willis’s tenebrous photography changed the notion of how a movie should look from that point on. But Michael’s exile in Sicily is an especially exciting chapter in the film.
The passage is rich, without lushness–Coppola doesn’t swoon over Italian countryside like everyone else who brings a camera there. Coppola shows you the bald hills, the stones, the sun, the anxiousness of the people to get out of Sicily. Seemingly everyone Michael meets during his exile is trying to learn English in hope of immigrating. Michael visits the village of Coreleone, and instead of being a haven of hearty peasants, it’s a war zone, an eerie white-washed town, with widows in black, and plaques memorializing the dead men who picked each other off.
Coppola presents to us a Sicily wracked with vendettas–you don’t leave the house without your rifle. The basic story in the Sicilian sequence in The Godfather is of Michael’s courtship and loss of a heartbreaking village girl named Appollonia (the rose-breasted Simonetta Stefanelli). So much else is going on in the sequence, especially Michael asserting himself, essentially demanding a courtship from the girl’s father. It’s the first moment, when we see him sitting in the presence of a frightened but proud old man, where we see how ruthless Michael is becoming.
The tension in The Godfather takes place between an America where you can too easily lose your soul, and a home country where you can too easily lose your life. It’s matched with another tug of war between the pull of the family’s love, and the bloodiness that you endure to stay inside one. One of the key performances in the history of film is Marlon Brando’s hoarse, paunchy, regal Don Vito Corleone, the “lionheart”–no wonder you keep thinking of dying chivalry when you watch him. “Gravitas” was the Roman word for the most manly of virtues; it means the sense of being weighted by one’s own sincerity. Hence the word ‘gravity.’ Brando has this here, radiating a bottomless sense of authority.
Brando’s fatherliness is so compelling that it was the text of an entire other movie (a comedy, The Freshman, 1990); those of us who have had uneasy relations with our own fathers watch Brando with a pang of longing: if only we could have been sheltered, nourished, advised, loved, by a father like that! The burst of daylight when you leave the theater brings you back to your senses. Having a father like that costs more than most of us are willing to pay. (Thus conscience doth make Fredos out of us all.)
It’s surprising to remember that Brando was generally considered too young for the part at the time The Godfather was released in 1972. You see Brando here, padded, made up artfully with liver spots, cheeks padded with cotton, his voice lowered to an almost inaudible rumble–Don Coreleone is not a man who has to raise his voice. Just hopelessly calling Brando’s Don Vito what it is–one of the key performances in American film–doesn’t give credit to Brando’s humor here, his subtlty, the irony of the Don when, as close to choler as he gets, he confronts a whining movie star who is also a Friend of the Family (Al Martino). And Brando’s final moment in a garden in deep summer–the soundtrack silent except for the babbling of a toddler, and the hum of cicadas–is a death scene no one will ever forget.
Coppola is a musician’s son, and his intelligent selection of the fine Italian composer Nino Rota is appropriate to the weight of the tragedy. The two main themes are sparse but tremendously moving: a lamenting waltz for the dying of the old order, a love theme that’s a reminder of bittersweetness of duty to the family. There’s about a half-dozen deathless performances here. Some favorites, among the smaller lives devoured to make the Corleones great: Lenny Montana’s punch-drunk, pathetically loyal Luca Brazzi, who dies staring straight at us, and Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, who, by an accident of birth, will never really be in the inner circle of the Corleones, even though he gives his life for the family. (And of course, Brando’s near unmatched aura of paternalism makes Tom Hagen’s exclusion all the more sad.)
I’d want to remember the hatefulness of Sterling Hayden as police Capt. McCluskey–onscreen but a few minutes but as vivid a performance of cop gone wrong as Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant or Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan. The obese Richard Castellano, a kind of mirthless clown, is often the viewer’s tour guide, explaining the customs of the mob–it’s his tips that explains what it means if you recieve a parcel containing a coat wrapping a dead fish, his lonely bulk on a folding cot that shows you where the expression “to go on the mattress” comes from. You could have made a whole movie out of any one of the characters. In a sense, director Francis Ford Coppola did.
Of all of the phenomenal things about this film, the performances, music, and photography, its range of moods and sub-plots–what amazes you the most is how of a piece The Godfather is. Three dozen characters are here, and none of them are stinted, none of them are clichés. Nothing-special actors like Abe Vigoda show a dignity that’s ennobled them ever since. The acts of violence that part the members of the cast from their lives are “nothing personal–just business,” as a black running joke has it.
The Godfather has its resonance because it reflects on all business, all the little deaths a person has to endure just to stay alive. A nation of great wealth and great spirituality is bound to rest uneasy. Everyone knows how much money there is in America. As George Bush once said, and presumably he’d know, America is the most religious country in the world. That’s why the probably the finest American novel, The Great Gatsby, and the finest American films–Greed, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather–are haunted by the biblical warning from Mark 8:36: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The death of the soul in The Godfather is presented with such conviction that even an atheist can feel the loss of something intangible, when watching the final shot of the doors closing on Michael Corleone.
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