Movie Review: The Godfather


CAPA Makes an Offer You Can’t Refuse

One of the joys of summer for cinephiles in Columbus must be the Summer Movie Series of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. (For the schedule, go to http://www.capa.com/movies/schedule.html). For 34 years, CAPA has been running old classics in the wonderfully atmospheric Ohio Theatre. If you have ever wondered what movie-going once was – before the bubble gum overdrive of the contemporary multiplex – this is probably your best shot here in Columbus. Borrowing from the original presentation (back in the 1920s) of movies as a part of a larger show, CAPA enlivens the event with piano music, a spoken introduction, a cartoon, some previews and an intermission. Contemporary movie-goers may find all this distracting and slow-paced, but it does harken back to an earlier manner of film presentation, and that is fun in itself. Before multiplexes and movie ‘theaters,’ films were presented in opera houses and ‘movie palaces.’ Kudos to CAPA for trying to hang onto to some of that.

The best film of this year’s series is The Godfather (only Dr. Zhivago comes close). As most readers of The Other Paper have probably already seen this film, and several times at that, I’ll keep the synopsis short and focus on convincing you to go see this titan one more time.

The story of course is well known. In the late 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) rules a powerful, politically well-connected mafia family in New York City. He is a family-man, however, and most of the tension in the film is generated by the admirably close family loyalties of the characters contrasted with the violent illegality of their daily lives. Deeply dividing the mafia families in New York is the question of the burgeoning trade in narcotics, and the fallout includes an attempt on the Don’s life. This brings one of the Don’s sons, Michael (Al Pacino), who had stood outside the family business, back in. Michael is capable and sympathetic (a war hero even), but when he joins the family business, we quickly see his lethalness. Much of the emotional impact of the film comes from following his narrative arc – from affable and promising young man to silent, homicidal mafia kingpin.

The rest of the movie is a working out of Michael’s rise under the shadow of his father’s assassination attempt and the inter-mafia family violence of the rising drug trade. First time viewers may be surprised that, despite the title, Brando actually has relatively little screen time and is not Don for most of the film. The story is less about Vito than the passage of power from Vito to Michael and its impact on ‘la famiglia.’ I will stop here for first-time viewers, but the denouement is justly famous.

The film is, as we all know, a landmark. It was ranked number two out of the top 100 American movies in the 20th century by the American Film Institute (Citizen Kane of course was number 1). It garnered 11 Academy Award nominations and won (only!) three. It is even the number one ‘user-rated’ film on IMDB.com! Almost any list of world or American cinema inevitably includes in its top 10.

But you say you know this already and want to know why you should go back again?

1. The script. Perhaps one reason for the film’s great vigor is the basis of its script in the excellent eponymous novel by Mario Puzo. Puzo, a professional writer (not a Hollywood hack) with purported contacts to Cosa Nostra. He brings more narrative gravity to this mob story than other good mob movies with original scripts like Donnie Brasco or Scorsese’s various efforts. Rather than re-invent the wheel, director Francis Ford Coppola wisely stepped aside to let Puzo write the screenplays for all three Godfather films. Indeed, the may be one of the few films superior to its original novel (the Exorcist also comes to mind).

2. The narrative. The story is deep, complex and rich. Good films – like good books – can withstand and reward repeated viewings, and bring you back to uncover more detail. Coppola and Puzo particularly deserve credit for identifying the drug trade as a deeply dividing traditional organized crime in the United States. As John Gotti, arguably the last don, protested on his arrest, the Cosa Nostra had some sense of proportion or “rules” (Gotti’s own term). During the film, Brando counsels one supplicant to justice instead of vengeance, and the assembled dons of the families agree that the drug trade is to be controlled. Yet as the FBI slowly eradicated the mafiosi in the 60s and 70s, into the vacuum stepped less restrained street gangs, directed by extremely vicious Latin American syndicates in the 1980s and well-connected ‘New Russians’ in the 1990s. The Godfather is a window into a world of ‘temperate’ organized crime that scarcely exists anymore and prompts us to wonder if we might not be better off with them than what followed. The film has the required length to let us meet each character and develop an empathy with them. Such a film about the Cosa Nostra works because we care about the characters and are crushed that they live so violently. A story about gangbangers is less powerful, because while they too live violently, we don’t care much about them anyway.

3. The performances. James Caan, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall were all nominated against one another for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1973. Brando of course took the Best Actor Award (famous for the faux-reception speech). And in general, Coppola does an astonishing job wringing good performances from his large ensemble cast. Even Talia Shire (Rocky’s girlfriend) and those long-lost folks playing Tessio, Carlo, Clemenza, Salazo, etc. do a great job. This is not a modern, celebrity-driven vehicle. Coppola actually sublimates the egos of his cast to the requirements of the film and so improves their performances. For those who study the technique of film-making, this is a case study in solid performances across a major ensemble cast.

So is there anything wrong with the movie? One might quibble with the ‘action’ sequences. When Sonny (James Caan) beats up Carlo, you can tell his punches aren’t connecting. Similarly when Sonny (spoiler ahead) is assassinated, its hard to believe he would have survived the first few rounds to make it out of the car (for the awful death scene). But these are trivial concerns, raised by the age of CGI F/X. Perhaps a more significant narrative problem is the likely aftermath (spoiler ahead) of the closing massacre. Its hard to imagine a slaughter of that magnitude would not have brought down the combined vengeance of the remnants of all the families, as well as major police investigations. I generally find in the films, that the Corleones murder with greater impunity than is realistic, but we’ll have to trust Puzo.

Recommendation: First-time viewers: This is a no-brainer, it’s so good. But wait to see it at CAPA in widescreen and not just on DVD. Repeat Viewers: If you haven’t seen it in awhile or ever in the theater, this is an excellent opportunity. A film of this quality can withstand and reward multiple viewings, and chances to catch it in a theater are rare. Die-hard fans: So, like me, you own the DVD collection and can quote lines from all three films. Well, then just take a friend or go to see it one more time to support our friends at CAPA. 5/5 stars.

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