Of course I could’ve written a full Classics piece on “The Godfather.” I could write a book on “The Godfather.”
Except I can’t write a book on “The Godfather.” There’s too much I simply do not know, too many people who have seen the film more than I have and will serve as a better expert on one of the greatest films ever made. There are non-film critics who are more familiar with “The Godfather” than I am.
And yet it is impossible not to be familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s film. No film this critically acclaimed (it sits at #2 on the AFI Top 100 and #4 on the Sight and Sound poll) is also this widely popular and beloved (it also sits at #2 on the IMDB Top 250). I had watched the film mere months ago, and there was not a moment of the sprawling three hour epic, not even just the iconic deaths and dramatic scenes that have been copied to death, that I could not visualize.
“The Godfather” is a lush, beautiful film, almost like a photograph in its picturesque quality. If you’ve seen “The Godfather,” picture in your head right now the Corleone family posing for their wedding photograph. This moment is not Sonny getting gunned down at a toll booth by barrages of machine guns (is there a cooler, more iconic death than his? If so, it’s rivaled by others in this very film), and yet I can practically see them standing right there. I can see the Don in the middle, Michael and Kay on the end, the little children in the front; they’re all there.
How does Coppola do it? None of his cinematography smacks you in the face with its beauty. This is not Scorsese cutting to a striking overhead shot at the end of “Taxi Driver” or following behind a gangster in a long unbroken take in “Goodfellas.” Yet every shot is perfectly placed and everything seems where it should be.
As for the period set pieces, Coppola does not smack the audience in the face with those either. He does not linger for long on the Sicilian countryside or the 1940s city streets. And if he does pause for beauty, such as in the wide shots before we see the horse’s head scene, it’s to build the utmost suspense.
“The Godfather” is an epic saga first and has the aesthetic and visual appeal to match it second, not the other way around.
And yet “The Godfather” is all about images. The film considers the rules, the respect and the presence we put forward to command power. In its glamorous view of the gangster life, it shows how even our faithful image we present to our family can change us and force us into violence or betrayal.
There’s so much I can say about the performances, each one so pitch perfect and iconic. It’s a pity Al Pacino didn’t win his Oscar this year, but it’s so hard to choose between him, James Caan and Robert Duvall, that one can understand why it went to Joel Grey for “Cabaret,” a film that almost took away “The Godfather’s” Best Picture victory too.
Brando, of course, is a God in the lead role. Michael is really the film’s central character, but no one commands the film like Vito Corleone. His performance is so wonderful in the way he teeters between Old and New Hollywood and proves he as an actor is so far removed and elevated from all the rest of film history.
I wish I had taken more notes during the film. I wish I put forth the effort to analyze every composition and wonderfully memorable character and line of dialogue, but as soon as the terrifically long and enthralling wedding scene, you become immersed in this complex narrative and family dynamic. You lose track of time and the film hardly feels like three hours at all. As is typically not the case with such masterpieces, watching it seems so effortless.