The Godfather

1972, Movie, R, 175 mins

Review

GODFATHER, THE
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One of the central American movies of the last 25 years, and one of very few to succed as both popular entertainment and high art. THE GODFATHER changed forever the popular perception of organized crime, implying strong parallels between the workings of the Mafia and those of any other profit-making corporation, and imparting operatic gravity to its liberal doses of violence.

The film opens with the wedding of Don Vito Corleone's (Marlon Brando) daughter Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), a small-time bookie. Present at the ceremony is Brando's youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), a much-decorated Marine captain who has just returned from WWII. College-educated, sensitive and perceptive, Michael is unlike almost all the other guests except Kay (Diane Keaton), his WASP sweetheart. Pacino points out gangster luminaries to Kay as a small boy might heroes in a baseball park.

Problems for the Corleone family arise with the appearance of Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a maverick gangster who has the backing of a rival Mafia family. In a meeting with the Corleones, Sollozzo informs the family that he intends to establish wide-scale heroin sales in NYC, but requires the permission of Don Vito to do so. Corleone, an old-school Mafia don, sends Sollozzo packing, saying that he is disgusted by the thought of narcotics and is content with his gambling, prostitution and protection rackets. (In fact, he is reluctant to jeopardize his political contacts by venturing into this controversial new terrain.) The refusal leads to a gang war in which the Godfather is wounded, but not killed, in an assassination attempt.

Sonny (James Caan) temporarily takes over control of the family from the injured don, as Michael opts to kill Sollozzo and a corrupt police captain in revenge for the attack on Vito. After Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, the volatile Sonny beats up Carlo for having assaulted Connie and is then killed in an ambush that Carlo helped set up.

While in hiding, Michael takes a young Sicilian wife, only to lose her in a botched assassination attempt that was aimed at him by a rival family. Newly hardened, he returns to America to take control of the family from Don Vito who, now recuperated from his injuries, is retiring.

Great movies aren't usually planned as such; they happen through an unusual confluence of talents and qualities. THE GODFATHER is no exception. Coppola had set out simply to redeem a faltering career when he started to shoot the popular Mario Puzo mafia novel. His talent brought him luck. First he collected an extraordinary number of the great actors who made American filmmaking interesting during the 70s and 80s: Marlon Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall. Then he spiced the mixture with some accomplished character actors: John Marley, Al Lettieri, Sterling Hayden, and Coppola's sister, Talia Shire. Coppola also had the eminent good sense--or good luck--to get Nino Rota to write his last great score. He got a finely crafted script from author Puzo, and then worked obsessively to push all involved to the limits of their abilities, and sometimes beyond.

Puzo's novel (which also redeemed a faltering career) provided not one, but several mythic elements that Coppola was canny enough to reinforce in the film. THE GODFATHER is a generational saga; it's also an action film; but above all, it catches the imagination of audiences because it suggests that the career of a gangster is not so very different from the career of a businessman or a politician. This had important resonance for the generation of the early 70s.

The film is dark--Coppola had cinematographer Gordon Willis deliberately underlight each scene; the mood is dark; and the climax, in which Michael indulges in an orgy of blood vengeance, would simply be horrific, were it not for the ironic melodies of the Rota score, which underline the humane sensibilities of the storyteller and keep us at an appropriate distance. And this points to Coppola's greatest achievement with THE GODFATHER; he simultaneously presents us with two views of the Corleone family. We see it from within, sympathizing with the motives and dilemmas of these very real, attractive and charismatic individuals; and we see it from without, in a state of suspended disgust at a moral code that knows only greed and blood. leave a comment

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