Monday, August 11, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Godfather"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppela, 1972

The Godfather is a movie about ways of life and the way that values adapt and endure as the world changes. The business of the family in question -- maintaining a network of illegal gambling and prostitution by hurting, killing, and scaring people -- is almost irrelevant; their Italian-ness is what is really important. And that ethnic background, in the 1945 setting of the story, dictates many things about relationships within the family and community, and about what one does and does not do in various social contexts. To watch the characters interact is to glimpse within an arcane rulebook on the conduct of Life that is very different than the one that we (or at least I) am used to. As the family is beset by changes of fortune, by changes in the practice of organized crime, and always by the relentless cultural force of the American mainstream, some of the old ways survive in new contexts, and some do not.

Or, The Godfather is a moral parable about how laudable qualities like respect for others, familial love and loyalty, and the drive to be of service in the world can paradoxically lead to destructive actions and consequences. The film's central character, Michael Corlione, has been groomed to rise above his family's problematic trade, but when a series of actions instigated by his incompetent older brother create a major crisis, he steps forward to save the day. He increasingly asserts his impressive intelligence, determination, courage, and self-control, however, in arranging the gruesome executions of people he finds inconvenient. Evil circumstances, argues The Godfather, make the best of men into the worst of men.

Or – for a very unconventional way of watching the film – the Godfather is a movie about the marriage of an unhappy Italian-American woman. It starts with her wedding, explores the ramifications throughout her family of crises in the marriage, and ends with the unpleasant death of her husband. Now, the movie isn’t really about this marriage, of course – but it’s interesting to what an extent the movie is structured by the life events of these very minor characters. It’s a very nice narrative device.

Or, The Godfather is nothing more or less than a masterpiece of filmed entertainment. Rather like how some Shakespeare plays seem to be strung together out of clich├ęs simply because they have been so widely quoted, The Godfather can feel like a collection of classic movie scenes. Yet all of its famous set pieces really are quite great, and so is most of the narrative material in between. The central characters, all highly stylized, nevertheless manage to act very naturally, and every second of screen time seems beautifully composed and framed down to the smallest detail. The film melds violence and tenderness, florid sentimentality and stern stoicism, the exotic and the quotidian, into an amazingly powerful and intelligent gangster flick. A terrific movie.

Plot: Criminals kill each other over disagreements about territory, business practice, and lapses in loyalty. One family's favorite son, reared to transcend criminal life, becomes embroiled instead due to his older brother's failures of leadership. He ultimately becomes an especially dangerous criminal.

Images: The style, feel, and mood of mid-40s America is beautifully reconstructed. There is a lot of eye candy here, with plenty of rich and authentic detail to look at in the background if you can pull your eyes away from the uniformly strong performances in the foreground.

Dialogue: This is a film packed with memorable lines. Despite being a rather long movie, it is taut -- very little is wasted. Every bit of dialogue is pulling double duty in furthering the plot and developing the character of the speaker. It's an amazing economy, and it is part of what gives The Godfather the impact of half a dozen ordinary movies.

Prognosis: Are you kidding me? After this re-watching, I'm very comfortable saying this: everybody should see the Godfather! Film aficionados should watch it for its technique and influence, anybody who likes movies should watch it for its entertainment value, and anyone else interested in or immersed in American society needs to watch it if only for the sake of their cultural literacy.


d said...

i'm glad you came down on the side of pro-godfather. if you hadn't, i'da had to quit reading your blog.

godfather 2 = also really, really good.

godfather 3 = wtf?

Rex Parker said...

Took a while for Godfather to grow on me (maybe I was too young the first time I saw it ... that, or I fell asleep from grad school exhaustion). Anyway, I now think it's about the best movie ever made. So beautiful, thoughtful, moving ... FFC's commentary track on the DVD is also one of the best such tracks I've ever heard. Really illuminating.


margaret said...

I've never seen The Godfather, and eventually thought maybe I shouldn't, so I could be in some kind of control group for a cultural study. But perhaps I will reconsider.