I truly can’t do The Godfather justice in a mere thousand words. And, unfortunately, many have already written volumes analyzing and exploring this divine document. But as someone extremely fussy and picky about film quality, and someone attempting to better educate themselves about the history of cinema, I feel I’m doing an injustice not to mention when a film not only meets, not only exceeds, but makes love to my expectations, cuddles them warmly in the afterglow, and makes eggs in the morning.
What can be said about God’s own face?
I was putting off watching The Godfather for a while just because of the shear length of the film. I’ve only made one other mistake that bad, and it involved five lines of coke and a banana. For the longest time I’ve heard that Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about a Sicilian crime syndicate in New York is one of the best movies ever made, and for the longest time it’s just been on the back burner. Until last night, when I finally sat down and made myself watch it.
Really, what can be said?
The Godfather runs for almost 3 whole hours, and each second is utter perfection. It’s a testament to the strength of the screenplay when you can sit in one spot and watch the film for twice the length of most feature films and be totally riveted and enthralled the whole time. This is a long, long movie, but not a single instant is wasted.
I’m not even going to bother to explain to you the plot of the film, because if you haven’t seen it yet, you should go figure out for yourself just what the whole thing is about. I went in with a basic knowledge of some of the more famous scenes and dialogue (horse’s head in the bed, leave the gun take the cannoli, an offer you can’t refuse, etc.) just because this movie is a cultural icon and has been referenced nonstop throughout the ages. That is, I had no idea what the actually story arc was. And not entirely expecting it at the beginning of the movie, watching Michael Corleone slowly become corrupted by his father and sink into the depths of evil was goddamn mesmerizing.
Which begs the question, why people do actually like this movie? If you look at the story elements objectively, every character is either a weak willed woman or a murderous sociopath. There’s absolutely no reason to sympathize with any of them, and at the end of the day, the whole movie ends up, in many ways, glorifying greed, violence, and the abandonment of morality.
That’s the miracle of Coppola’s magnum opus. The storytelling in the movie is so perfect, the screenplay so airtight and compelling, that during the course of the film, I really didn’t give a shit how many people Sonny and Michael and Vito killed. I really didn’t care. In fact, I reveled right there with them every time they committed murder or beat the shit out of someone. I rooted for them. We, the audience, everyone who’s ever enjoyed The Godfather, rooted for them. The plot is so good that morality itself is a moot point in comparison with the story.
That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t really glorify being amoral. It’s much more about the complexities and intricacies of how a human being can be corrupted by power, and serves as a very honest fable about corruption through power. In the end, Michael Corleone changes, and becomes a different person, sacrificing his humanity for control over the Corleone dynasty, and gets away with the things he does. There isn’t really a lesson to be learned here. The mere facts about corruption are all that stand out in the film. There isn’t a conclusion insofar as an answer to whether or not Michael is happy running the family or enjoys his life, or regrets his decisions. The film simply states that if a man abandons his soul and his humanity, and ruthlessly dispatches with his enemies, he can ascend to untold heights of material influence. This is ambiguity at its most refined. It’s ultimately up to the viewer by the end of the film to ask themselves what they would want and whether or not they themselves would make the same choices Michael would make. Coppola doesn’t impose any one viewpoint on the audience, and the camera remains a purely objective way of witnessing The Godfather epic .
Speaking of the camera. Fuck. If you were caught up too much in the story of The Godfather, it demands a repeat viewing just to appreciate every shot in the film. Every shot. They’re all perfect. The camera follows the action without fail and never ceases to have the most compelling perspective possible on the scene at hand. There’s always a slight sense of distance between the viewer and the events in the film, even when there’s a solid close-up on one person’s face. This is always a technique I’ve found fascinating in films, as it becomes at some times that the farther away we are from the dramatic action, the more compelling it becomes. For example, The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke includes a scene of a small boy being beaten by his father, but we only hear the child’s noises of pain from behind a closed door down a long hallway. It’s a terrifying and disturbing sequence made all the more powerful by our removal from the action. That’s not to say that we are removed to such an extreme in The Godfather. The film maintains just enough of a distance to increase dramatic tension yet remains close enough to give us every imaginable detail in the scene at hand.
In the end, most of the movie, up until the baptism scene, focuses mostly on the actors and how they interact with each other and the camera. There are very few instances (again, up until the baptism scene) where the shot is overpowering of the focus of the scene, or where the music in the film takes over the mood or story. In fact, Coppola barely every plays music during any scene of dialogue, preferring instead to let the actors speak for themselves.
The Godfather easily ranks in the best films I’ve ever seen, and now in my list of personal favorite movies as well. There are masterpieces everywhere. This is something more.