Revisiting THE GODFATHER – IAFT Movie Review
by Robert Taylor / IAFT-L.A.
The first miracle of The Godfather (1972) is not that we come to care deeply for its characters, but that we care about them in the first place.
They are, after all, essentially despicable people who torture, murder and maim to ensure their power.
And yet here is a story so well told on every level that the viewer cannot help but engage fully.
The film tells the story of the dying away of one generation of a mafia family bleeding into the maturation of the next.
The central figure of the dying generation is Vito Corleone, the Godfather, and at the center of the new is his son Michael. Both men have their own set of rules and morals and, as the story progresses, the two value sets begin to mix and corrupt one another.
The screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on Puzo’s novel, is ingenious in the way it invites us slowly but seductively into its world.
Just look at the way they structure and pace the emotional arcs of the characters. The movie opens with the wedding reception of Don Vito’s daughter, Connie. We see the “family” as just that—a family.
Our first introduction to Michael is with his date, Kay, who knows nothing about Michael’s history or mafia ties. Kay is our eyes into the family.
After Michael tells her the lengths his family goes to, he assures her: “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”
This intrinsically puts us on Michael’s side, and we remain there as he begins to fall back into the dirty work of the Corleones.
Even as he does that, we still understand and care. After all, the first thing he does is save his helpless father’s life after an assassination attempt. How can you not identify with that?
He takes vengeance by killing two men. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.
He is exiled to Italy and only returns to America after his wife and brother Sonny have been murdered, and by that point the spiral into corruption is perfectly set-up.
That leads into another reason the film works so perfectly: This world is completely closed.
Martin Scorsese must have modeled his classic Goodfellas (1990) on this same idea.
Every character we meet and interact with (beside Kay and Michael’s first wife) is either a member of the Corleone family, a rival to their family, or a person in awe of their power.
With no voice of reason cautioning against murder, we question the morality of it less. The Corleones clearly have their own code and values, and on those terms The Godfather plays completely fairly.
Coppola has made a career of painting outside the lines, and his use of the large and talented acting ensemble here is rivaled only in his other work. Al Pacino as Michael is the heart of the story and gives a fascinating, multi-layered performance, and Marlon Brando in the title role is remarkably compelling. But those around them are just as mesmerizing.
Though the movie is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene, one could argue that the two most iconic moments are the horse head in the bed and the leave-the-gun-bring-the-cannoli murder.
Neither involves the main cast, and the movie is the better for it.
And then there’s Diane Keaton as Kay, always just outside the Corleone family and never able or willing to take that final step of acceptance, even after she marries Michael. She appears to be a strong woman from the outset, and yet the final scene is her believing Michael’s lie that he had nothing to do with the death of his brother-in-law.
Does it make her look gullible for buying into his lies and, by extension, his sins and corruption?
But then again, haven’t we, as the viewers, done the same thing?
- Writers: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay), Mario Puzo (novel)
- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Actors: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lenny Montana, Richard Bright, Alex Rocco, Simonetta Stefanelli