"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse..."
Well, here we are. A while back, I committed myself to this series on what I consider to be absolutely perfect motion pictures...and as far as I'm concerned, we are at the epicenter of that list. Because Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is not just any perfect film--it is the perfect film. Even amongst screen masterpieces, it stands head and shoulders above the pack, as what may very well be the ultimate expression of filmmaking yet seen.
In my humble opinion, and the opinion of countless others, The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made. It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it is Mozart's Requiem; it is King Lear. Filmmaking may be a flawed art compromised to a certain by being a form of popular entertainment first and foremost--but all that aside, it can be safely said that it literally gets no better than this.
Do I even have to sell you on why The Godfather deserves such praise? The epic story of one family's corruption of the American dream and of the shocking effects of unbridled power, it is a work of sublime beauty, startling violence and technical mastery, all rolled into one transcendent viewing experience. In simple terms, it is the type of film which, once it is discovered while changing TV channels (usually when one gets to AMC), must be watched for the remainder of its running time.
Mario Puzo's novel is lifted by the once-impeccably gifted hands of Coppola to heights I would dare say even the author himself had never dreamed. With his accomplice in genius, the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis behind the camera, Coppola approaches the material with a singularity of vision that is all but unparalleled in American cinema. This is Greek tragedy transformed into pop culture. This is that great, hardly attainable feat: entertainment both fit for mainstream consumption, and masterful enough to become high art in the truest sense.
With a cast of characters highlighted by career-defining performances from the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall, it is the kind of film in which plot is secondary, and character comes first. And for my money, that's really where it's at, and the true test of whether or not a piece of narrative will stand the test of time. It is also why lovers of the film (is there anyone who doesn't?) can watch it and rewatch it, gaining more pleasure from it every time.
Brando brings a complicated pathos to the role of Don Vito Corleone that is dismissed as a caricature only by the most cynical of moviegoers. Rather, the Don as played by Brando is a man desperately trying to hold his family together with the good intentions that he doesn't realize will always pave the road to hell. His son Michael (Pacino) is the moral center and narrative lynch-pin of the film; as we watch his descent from squeaky-clean war hero to cold and calculating mob boss, we can't help but feel we are witnessing a fall from grace as timeless as any depicted in fiction since the dawn of civilization.
Duvall deserves so much more credit than he ever gets for a restrained yet brilliant performance as consigliere Tom Hagen, an adopted son to the Don who in many ways would've made the best don himself, were he not a non-Italian. And then there is Caan, so utterly perfect as the hot-blooded Sonny Corleone that he has been recognized over the years by numerous Italian-American organizations, despite not actually being Italian in real life. Add to this unforgettable performances from the likes of John Cazale (Fredo), Talia Shire (Connie), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Diane Keaton (Kay) and many more, and you have a veritable smorgasbord of gifted actors doing their finest work.
Nino Rota's brilliant and iconic score needs no introduction, and almost no justification for how powerful, moving and completely gorgeous it is, not to mention entirely crucial to the impact the movie makes on the viewer. This is film music of the highest order, lending an air of larger-than-life tragedy and gravity that compliments Puzo, Coppola and Willis' work with a level of perfection seldom, if ever achieved. Just a note or two of the score, whether it be the Main Title, Sicilian Pastorale, or Halls of Hear theme, can conjure up instant emotional reactions.
Much more than a simple gangster film, The Godfather is Americana itself--the tale of the immigrant and his place in the nation, of the bonds of family and how they can be warped to serve greed and aggression. It challenges our notions of good and evil, often drawing criticism, in fact, for the way it arguably glorifies the world it portrays and glamorizes the actions of those who live in it. However, when watching the film, one cannot help but be lost in this glorification, whether it be morally sound or not.
It is a testament to the power of the work that even though it paints for us the picture of a man twisted and transformed by the effects of power, we cannot help but marvel at the beauty of it all. Is this irresponsible? Is it cynical? I propose that it is neither--rather, it is art. Plain and simple. Take it for what it is. As for me, I choose to take it as the most thoroughly realized piece of storytelling ever put to celluloid.
Francis Ford Coppola never again reached the heights of The Godfather, unless it was arguably with his almost-nearly-as-perfect sequel two years later. But that isn't a slight against Coppola--after all, no filmmaker ever has quite reached the heights of The Godfather. "I believe in America" is the fitting first line of the film, uttered by Bonasera in the Don's study on his daughter's wedding day. For this is a tale of America first and foremost, for good or ill, warts and all--it holds a mirror up to us. And having basked in the majesty of The Godfather, the jewel of American filmmaking, I must say that I believe in it as well.
NEXT UP: The Exorcist (1973)