Historically speaking, filmmaking can be categorized as the seventh art, an amalgamation of the six previous arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry and dance; therefore, it takes on the verisimilitude of being the most vehement narrator of life.
24 March of this year marks the 50th anniversary release of director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) – a film that is considered as one of the greatest movies of all time. Based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name, The Godfather has remained a staple of storytelling that has transcended beyond its original setting and through its perennial themes.
I read the Godfather novel first and then moved to watch the film – both happened before I reached my teen years. As a child who had been dealt with an unfair hand, I noticed a lot of things I didn’t quite understand. I had to, in a way, raise myself. I was not an orphan but was possessed by the solitude of such a person. In such circumstances, books and cats had been my only companions, and movies were the new medium flirting with my blooming mind and personality.
Watching The Godfather was a pivotal experience for me. The Corleones became a surrogate family for me, and the ideologies explored in the novel influenced me. Watching the film a few years after finishing the novel felt as if I was recalling my family history in a dream state.
The story, spanning from 1945 to 1955, chronicles the Corleone family under patriarch Vito Corleone – ironically played by the legendary Marlon Brando, focusing on the transformation of his youngest son, Michael Corleone – played by Al Pacino, from reluctant yet favored son to ruthless mob don
The Corleone legacy was centered mostly around olive oil, but in the 1940s organized crime was about to dip its toe into the drug business. Don Vito, clinging to his vision of him for the future, rejects the idea of getting involved in narcotics, as they destroy lives and it would make the business dirtier, turning society and the law against them.
Despite the nature of its world, The Godfather, inherently, is a family drama. The opening sequence lures you into the mystery of that gray world; the movie also establishes the perspective of an insider. The mafiosi are presented as everyday people, not as the scum of society as portrayed by the crime dramas that preceded the seminal film.
Familial ties are established with as much importance as La Cosa Nostra itself. In this world people don’t have choices they merely have the illusion of choice as these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, there is always coercion involved.
Dark had been done before The Godfather; Film noir and German Expressionism harnessed the power of the shadow in black and white photography but the Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis earned the nickname Prince of Darkness for the way he brought the art of shadow and deliberate under exposure to color cinematography.
Willis has said his vision for The Godfather was based on evil. The duality also represents the outer versus inner worlds of appearance – how under the veneer of a strong family, a Machiavellian puppet master positions them. The film is shot in a painterly tableau style in which every painstaking frame is so artful it could hang on the walls of the Uffizi gallery.
One of the most significant decisions Coppola took while adapting the novel was to focus less on Vito and more on Michael, and the tragedy of succession. Michael isn’t part of the family business and shuns it. What begins his descent into villainy through the film are the actions he is forced to take. His father envisioned Michael becoming a senator for the family.
However, Michael is forced to assume an active role in the family business when his father gets shot. Vito was too resistant to change and that stubbornness lost him his son and got himself shot in the process. The obvious transition of Michael into a so-called “bad guy” occurs when adverse circumstances coerce him to commit the cold-blooded murder of Sollozzo and McClusky.
The youngest son of the Corleone family is forced to flee to his parent’s ancestral land of Sicily following the New York murders. His time in Italy keeps him away from the ugly war in New York. But the news of Sonny’s brutal death and witnessing his newlywed wife’s murder hardens him. The devastation of losing his loved ones forces him to grow old quickly. Michael understands the importance of keeping his lineage going. When he proposes to Kay for her hand in marriage, it is more out of convenience than out of love – the business of survival.
There is an exchange of power: from the old to the new. As the transfer of power takes place, there is a moment where a father apologizes to his son for an unintended fate. Vito’s death allows Michael to execute a plan he was patiently waiting for. The day he becomes Godfather for his nephew of him is planned to coincide with the day he executes his enemies of him.
Michael’s way of using his alibi to carry out violence of towering proportions not only earns him everyone’s respect, but fear and dread also. In the famous baptism scene, Michael literally becomes a godfather and simultaneously carries out a brutal murder spree that asserts his power over the rest of the New York families and his enemies.
The baptism sequence shows that to be successful, Michael has to pay a price. And the price is to trade soul for success. That is a sacrifice Michael is willing to make and add commentary on the capitalist ideology where ruthlessness in the marketplace has become a necessary credential for not only success but also survival.
The family that Vito always kept in sight despite his commitment towards the family business, is abandoned by Michael when he shuts the door on his wife. He isn’t just Michael anymore – he is now Don Corleone.
For the family business to flourish, Michael sacrifices his ties with his family. From a naïve, innocent and a stoic war hero, he ends up becoming a cold, heartless, and vengeful mafia lord. The tragedy for Michael is that he could not avoid the inevitable doom of succession despite prior knowledge.
Although many films about mobsters preceded The Godfather, Coppola steeped his film in Italian immigrant culture, and his portrayal of mobsters as persons of considerable psychological depth and complexity has been unprecedented.
The Godfather has been a catalyst for the production of numerous other depictions of Italian-Americans as mobsters, including films such as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), The Irishman (2019) and TV series such as David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) , among others. The Godfather has been thoroughly integrated into American life, and transcended beyond.
FBI surveillance reports claimed that after seeing the film, many mobsters altered their speech patterns to imitate that of Vito Corleone and be a “man of honor” – something that has not remained limited to the ‘La Cosa Nostra’, but also romanticized many aspects of life on this side of the law as well.
50 years since its release, The Godfather is still resonant. All the characters in The Godfather reside in us – representing aspects of us and holding a mirror in front of us, revealing a truth that we thought was buried in our shadow-selves. The Godfather offers one a chance to explore their family and societal values against their moral values. And to be honest, it is an offer one can’t refuse.