"I believe in America," says Bonasera, the undertaker. "America
has made my fortune." Bonasera, played with eventual unctuousness by
Salvatore Corsitto, is speaking to a large figure in a darkened room.
Bonasera's daughter was raped, and the American justice system failed
her, so he told his wife that "for justice, we must go to Don
Corleone." Marlon Brando, in the classic American movie THE GODFATHER,
is Vito Corleone, Godfather to many and patriarch of a large and loyal
For its 25th anniversary the movie has been re-released to the
theaters with a new print but not much visible restoration.
Nevertheless, epic films exist to be seen on a big screen, and THE
GODFATHER reflects director Francis Coppola's vision of a picture both
vast and intimate.
The script by Coppola and the novel's author, Mario Puzo, opens at
the wedding of the Godfather's daughter. This richly textured montage
immediately sets the tone for the entire story. The Corleone family
represents the ideal American family -- loyal and loving. All families
have flaws, and theirs has to do with the family business. Everyone in
the family, except the young college kid and war hero Michael (Al
Pacino), is involved in the family's illegal business. Murder being
the price of entry in their trade, the Corleone clan has long since
been desensitized to violence by the requirements of their jobs. Only
Michael appears untouched by the evil around him. Michael tells a
frightening family story to his future wife, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton),
but distances himself from it. "That's my family, Kay," he assures
her. "It's not me." Anna Hill Johnstone's costumes for Michael almost
always include preppie ties to reinforce his putative innocence.
As in all good businesses, they must think strategically. Robert
Duvall plays Tom Hagen, the only non-Sicilian in the family. An
adopted stray, he is the family's lawyer (Consiglieri), levelheaded
brain, and chief representative. "Now we have the unions, we have the
gambling; and they're the best things to have," starts the
Consiglieri's prophetic advice to the Godfather. "But narcotics is a
thing of the future. And if we don't get a piece of that action, we
risk everything we have -- I mean not now, but ah ten years from now."
Duvall and all of the actors in the film are perfectly cast. His
Consiglieri has the cunning of someone who has no morals but total
allegiance. Hitler would have been pleased to have had him as his
James Caan plays the loose canon brother named Sonny. Dressed
sometimes in just a sleeveless undershirt, his performance smolders as
if a personal firestorm is always imminent.
Brando won the Academy Award for his performance, and it is his
signature role. Looking like a big, friendly teddy bear, he is
alternately the all loving father figure and the head of a brutal crime
syndicate. Watch especially how delicate and pronounced are his hand
gestures -- the subtle movement of his fingertips in front of his mouth
when thinking and the placing of his hand solemnly on his heart when
making a promise.
Done by someone less capable than Coppola, the movie would have
become just an impressive gangster movie -- full of large scale
violence. Certainly it is that, but the beauty of THE GODFATHER is in
the intimacy and realism of the script. "Don't forget the cannoli!"
screams Mrs. Clemenza (Ardell Sheridan) to her husband (Richard
Castellano) on his way to work. Work that day consists of seeing that
an errant coworker has his brains blown out.
The cinematography by Gordon Willis and the sets by Dean
Tavoularis create two worlds. The business side is conducted in darkly
paneled rooms with ominous shadows everywhere. The family side is full
of celebrations filmed in gorgeous autumnal colors and with beautiful
sets. The great Nino Rota's music similarly blends delightful, almost
folk music with somber funeral cadences.
William Reynolds's editing deserves a special mention with two
particularly stunning scenes coming to mind. After the Godfather dies
in the tomato patch, Reynolds dissolves the image into a convoy of
black Cadillacs bearing masses of flowers on their way to the
gravesite. As soon as the transition starts, funeral bells ring out
with great majesty as if a king has died.
The other scene comes toward the end when Michael is acting as
Godfather to his niece at her baptism. The priest asks him, "Do you
renounce Satan?" Before his answer, "I do renounce him," the editor
cuts to a scene of Clemenza blowing Strachi away with a shotgun. As
the priest continues with the baptismal litany, the editor continues
these seamless transitions between good and evil. One of the messages
of the film is the duality of man, and no sequence in the film
illustrates it better than this one.
THE GODFATHER is a seminal film in the American cinema. Examining
the meaning of family, violence, love, betrayal, and loyalty just to
name a few, its quality set a standard that few films have matched. An
unforgettable motion picture, but one worth seeing again and again.
THE GODFATHER runs just the right length at 2:55. It is rated R
for violence, profanity, nudity, and sex. The violence can be quite
shocking so I would recommend the film for teenagers only if they can
handle its intensity. I give this classic film my strongest
recommendation and a full ****.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes