Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
It’s impossible to look at The Godfather the movie without also encountering The Godfather the legend. The film is in a rarified field of cinema where its status as a classic is so indisputable; it is rarely even a matter of question. There is The Godfather, and then there is mostly anything else. Classics like this can be hard to approach—there’s something daunting to, say, Citizen Kane, a pressure that attends each viewing, a feeling that there is much to take in, but not, perhaps, much room to deviate. That isn’t true of The Godfather, though, which is so completely engrossing, so detailed and complex, so dedicated to itself as both an epic and an intimate portrait of one man’s corruption, that it shocks you with it’s greatness every time. The Godfather has the feel of perfection, and also it’s weight. But there’s a lightness to the whole thing, carried off less like a tale well told and more like an immutable truth of humanity finally unveiled. The film is a parable we’ve always known deep down, played out just as we might always have pictured it.
The Godfather has the feel of perfection, and also it’s weight. But there’s a lightness to the whole thing, carried off less like a tale well told and more like an immutable truth of humanity finally unveiled.
The Godfather invites us into a closed off world, a society that formed itself out of necessity and that functions by its own morality and with its own code. It doesn’t use youngest son Michael Corleone (a searing, stunning Al Pacino) as an audience surrogate, though he exists at the beginning of the film outside the family business. Instead, it drops us immediately into a man pleading for what he calls justice from a figure with the power to dispense it, a figure with the power of a god. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, whose performance cannot be diminished despite decades of parody and caricature) is a figure of unimpeachable power and wisdom. So long as he stands, the world will stand as he sees it. He orders, and the men in his sway bend things to his will. Of course, Don Corleone is not all powerful, as the film shows us again and again, but he stands for something that is—outside the laws of man, outside a system that does not always serve justice, a man with a code and the ability to enforce it.
The film is never romantic about this notion, though. Don Corleone is in no sense a hero. He’s just an honorable career criminal, someone who doesn’t look askance at a man trying to provide for his family, even if that man is doing it through drug-running and murdering. Corleone is shot down, when he is, because he refuses to compromise his ideals. He doesn’t want to get into the drug trade because it’s bad business, sure, but the way Brando savors the Don telling Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) that his business is “dangerous” speaks volumes. There is no crime in the world of The Godfather, save one: betrayal. All is allowed, everything is acceptable as a means to an end, except violating the code or taking sides against the family.
The Godfather is a titanic achievement in film, a three hour epic that never once feels rushed or overlong, an incredibly detailed film that still leaves much ambiguous.
The details of Michael Corleone’s fall from grace as fairly vague, carried by Pacino’s gloriously internal performance. Michael is brought into the life after he saves his father from a second assassination attempt and decides to seek vengeance on those who would attack a man in a hospital, but there is no sense that his quest is righteous or that it is a distinct turning point from which he can never return. All it is, ultimately, is a choice. Michael decides to be a different person, and over the span of years the film documents, he transforms from a veteran with a clean record to a man who can renounce Satan while ordering the execution of dozens, who can stare his wife in the eyes and lie to her in the one moment he has promised the truth.
That sequence, in which the christening of Michael’s godson is intercut with the murders of Michael’s enemies, is a thing of beauty, subtly underlining two of the film’s chief themes: the idea of fidelity to one’s family and the inescapable truth that the sins of the father are passed down to the son. Vito tells Michael at one point that he never wanted him to enter the business, that he wanted him to become “Senator Corleone, or Governor Corleone,” and there’s a crushing tragedy to the idea that Michael’s godson is, already and inexorably, caught up in the cycle from which Michael has failed to escape. He is baptized in blood, even as the murders take place far away. He is tied to a family that will ask only for loyalty, and will take everything else in the process of securing it.
Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his performance here, despite the fact that Michael is inarguably the lead of the movie. Yet this seems right because Vito could never really be reduced to a supporting turn, at least not at this point in his life (Robert De Niro would win Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Vito in The Godfather Part II, but that speaks less to the prominence of his role than to the gravity Brando exercises over the film). The man is a giant, and his ethics become, in some sense, the film’s. Vito is a bad man who does bad things, and yet, he constantly comes across as the most reasonable man in the room. There are no civilians, in The Godfather, though Michael is called one early on. There are only families, and the Corleone family is portrayed, again and again, as the most decent men in a world of liars, thieves, murderers and traitors. Brando plays Vito as a lion in winter, but his fading grace never diminishes his presence or his forceful ability to cut to the point. Even as he repeats his last advice to Michael, the act of senility barely registers over the fact that Vito’s word is gospel. The film never questions whether he is right. It’s a fact better left unexamined, and when Vito falls late in the film, it’s a perfect ending. He is only a man, and he dies in his garden, playing with his grandson. Yet his passing ends an era, and forces Michael’s becoming in the process. There has to be a Don for this world to work. There has to be an avatar of justice to command unquestioning loyalty from men who will commit grievous acts and never wonder whether those acts are sins.
Nino Rota’s score is deeply alluring, but there’s a thinly veiled tragedy to the thing. This is a story about the passing of power between two generations, one where what is lost in that transition is hinted at rather than confirmed. Vito Corleone agreed not to seek vengeance for the death of his son to forge a peace between the five families of New York. Michael Corleone kills everyone rather than cow to those who have hurt his family or shown him disrespect. The world becomes a more brutal place, and the man who steps in to lead it hastens that transition. There’s no justice in The Godfather (the only cop we see is corrupt); there’s only power. There are no outsiders because to these men, there is no outside.
The Godfather is a titanic achievement in film, a three hour epic that never once feels rushed or overlong, an incredibly detailed film that still leaves much ambiguous. The world in which it exists is one we can all understand almost intuitively, but Francis Ford Coppola layers it with such fully realized performances, such careful and nuanced direction that the whole thing barely feels acted or directed. The Godfather exists, because in some sense it has always existed. Coppola and his magnificent cast are but sculptors, chipping away the unnecessary stone to find the impeccable construct that always existed within it. The Godfather is, ultimately, an offer that cannot be refused.
The Godfather exists, because in some sense it has always existed. Coppola and his magnificent cast are but sculptors, chipping away the unnecessary stone to find the impeccable construct that always existed within it. The Godfather is, ultimately, an offer that cannot be refused.