By Philip Newton (England)


Forty two years after its initial release back in 1972, The Godfather is still regarded by some as the most important cinematic achievement to come out of the United States, and there is certainly a strong argument to be raised in this statement. It was made during the much respected Hollywood Renaissance, where young filmmakers inspired by European filmmaking made rich and multi layered character driven masterpieces where this pioneering work by Francis Ford Coppola can be considered at the forefront of an exciting movement. He would redefine the gangster genre first brought to prominence in the 1930’s with films such as White Heat and Little Cesar, by showing us the gangster world from their perspective. We are privy to the inner world they inhabit exposing all the family loyalty, honour, and betrayal which it takes to survive.

The first thing to admire about The Godfather is how it is built from within in a way that no other film before or after has ever quite captured in the same way. Other films based itself around the mob against the FBI, establishing the gangster’s world as being bad, with a viewer clearly being made aware that there is always a clear divide of good against evil. With The Godfather there is no such divide, we are this world and as an audience make the decisions over how we feel over the characters actions.

This is perfectly set up in the opening scene where Don Vito (Marlon Brando) hosts his daughter’s wedding at the family home and Coppola intercuts two sides of family unity which becomes a benchmark of the film. On the one hand we have the outside party of dancing and singing in a deep rooted Italian American tradition. The scenes feel so natural and authentic with wide open frames, they don’t manipulate us Coppola shows his characters embracing this deeply personal moment that we immediately feel an attachment to their values.

The other scene occurs inside Don Vito’s meeting room, he must accept requests from family friends as no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. These scenes are intimate and darkly lit when the camera cuts to a close up of the Don he exudes a great sense of honour and loyalty to his cause. Marlon Brandon gives his character a poise of lofty standing which is strangely admirable despite knowing what he does, but the way he delivers lines such as “a man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man” make us believe in his idea of the American dream.

It is further reinforced with additional characters who stand scattered around the room, these are his son’s Santino (James Caan) and Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) looking over the Don. The way they stand in the frame as somewhat shadowy henchman shows there is a dependence and belief in their Fathers ideals.

This then sets the tone of the film by clearly directing a gangsters world like being no different than any other political outfit or corporate business, we may question is this wrong? However are other institutions really any nobler? The film allows us to question these ideas.

It also manages to establish several quite tense and exciting scenes which never allow it to become dull. For example the scene involving youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) whom decides to assassinate two rivals, a mafia boss and a corrupt police sergeant builds in such suspense so cleverly because we know his intentions beforehand. It’s just a question in our minds whether he can pull it off? Coppola plays on this idea through close up’s of Pacino giving much more psychological foreboding towards the result we know is coming.

This leads to the other revelation in this film aside from Brando’s performance in that of Al Pacino who plays the successor to the head of the family Michael following the retirement of Don Vito. Pacino’s performance contrasts that of Brando’s quite decisively especially regarding their character’s own approach to leading the empire. While Brando paints a proud and wise figure embedded in maintaining family ties, always with a warm smile Pacino’s Michael is arrogant and power mad, with a cold hearted stare, a stare of a man bereft of a soul.

The Baptism scene near the end of the film further emphasises this, Michael whilst attending his sister’s son’s christening renounces Satan whilst simultaneously the camera intercuts it with the merciless slaying of the heads of the rival families. He is symbolically baptised in blood, standing as a malevolent force and I questioned whether my differing opinion between the two characters was valid? I mean they are both criminals and murders however like other institutions can ones intentions be more honourable? Or is it just the idea of the business they pursue that any sense of honour is ultimately futile.

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