The Good: Amazing acting, Moments of character, Great plot development, Decent soundtrack, Great DVD bonus features.
The Bad: None of the characters are particularly likable.
The Basics: Powerful and well-shot, The Godfather tells the story of the passing of the guard in a Mafia family.
According to the American Film Institute, The Godfather is the second-best film of all time, right behind Citizen Kane (reviewed here!). Neither film made it onto my own "Top Ten Films Of All Time" list, but The Godfather at least makes a run at a perfect film, whereas I'd argue Citizen Kane is largely successful because of the hype as opposed to the substance of the film. Even so, having seen The Godfather twice now, whether or not it is a perfect film or not can be the subject of debate; and ultimately, my take on it is that the film is a near-miss on perfection.
For sure, I understand that The Godfather is an epic tale and that it has depth and subtlety and even a character arc that develops wonderfully throughout the film. But even as the tale of Michael Corleone develops, I find it hard to care. Despite the story developing and unfolding well, Michael Corleone is hardly the greatest character of all time and the true disappointment is not how Michael rises up to become a Mafia Godfather, but rather his failure to resist the pressures on him. In fact, Michael is a weak man whose bad behavior is supposed to be somehow justified by the tragedies that surround him. This makes him far, far less impressive to me and I tend to prefer characters who act, who make their destinies, as opposed to those who surrender to the pressures that overwhelm them. Even so, there is enough in The Godfather to enthusiastically recommend it.
In New York City, in 1945, Connie Corleone is marrying Carlo Rizzi, which brings together the entire Corleone family, a powerful Mafia family that is one of New York's Five Families. On that day, Vito Corleone - the Godfather of the Family - cannot refuse the request of any who request favors of him, as part of an old Sicilian tradition. He is asked by his godson, singer Johnny Fontane, to help him get a movie role and Vito dispatches his consigliere, Tom Hagen, to California to take care of the problem. Among the guests is Vito's youngest son, an American Marine, Michael. Michael has effectively distanced himself from the family business. In fact, he is at such a distance that when rival gangster Sollozzo attempts to get the Corleone's into the heroin trafficking racket and Vito refuses (whatwith it being impractical for the other rackets the Corleones are involved in) and a hit is placed on Vito, no one bothers to take Michael out.
With Vito hanging onto life by a thread, Michael takes out Sollozzo and corrupt cop McCluskey and goes into hiding in Sicily. While Michael is in Sicily, the hotheaded Sonny keeps the Corleone family together during a turf war that wages on. When Carlo begins beating Connie, Sonny is drawn out and killed by his rivals. Michael is forced to return to the United States (his young wife also being killed) and he assumes the mantle of power from Vito, after the Godfather does what he can to end the war.
The Godfather is a weird combination of being packed with characters and being very plot-heavy. The thing is, characters in the film are annoyingly monolithic and as such, the film lacks some emotional impact in that none of them are terribly likable. Almost all of the old guard Mafia types are racists (which brings the drug trafficking plot to a pretty easy, if disturbing, resolution), Carlo is a dumb, abusive wifebeater, and the only aspect of the personalities we see of almost all of the primary characters is their business life. I'm not saying that the film would be better if one of the scenes opened with Sonny being interrupted while making additions to his stamp collection, but it certainly would give him some element of character that is unique and distinctive other than being a violent mobster.
In that regard, the two characters who actually have the most going for them are the Godfather, Vito, and Michael, but both are ultimately unsatisfying characters. Vito actually stands for something in that he does not want to risk his business interests over drugs when he is happy to control more reasonable vices (drinking and gambling). He is a pragmatist in this regard and he doesn't want to jeopardize his political connections with something politicians will never support. He is also something of a family man, but that level of character is displayed in the three lines a rival boss has at the climactic meeting (one of the bosses argues against getting involved in the drug trade because he doesn't want kids to get hooked). As a result, we are left watching a goon for two and a half hours and it is difficult to care what happens to a corrupt individual who is happy to employ murderous henchmen to do his bidding.
Similarly, Michael Corleone starts out as having more character than he ends up with and the transition is problematic in that circumstances change his life, not his strength of character. Michael is off living his own life when he makes a bad decision - getting revenge on the corrupt cop and the man who tried to have his father killed. After his one moment of actually acting and making a choice of his own, he spends the entire film reacting until he is pigeonholed into a role others (or "fate") select for him. He does not have the strength of character to refuse the wishes of others or to get out while he still can. This climaxes in the final scene of the film where he makes a conscious choice to do something truly despicable and by the end of the film, all of his promise is gone.
The thing is, too few people want to make the argument that Michael controls his own actions, but the truth is, he does. After one bad choice, Michael continues to make bad choices, but they are his choices. As a result, when he strikes out in a direction that is problematic or takes his character in a disappointing direction, he owns those mistakes.
The Godfather has a pretty immense cast of characters and they rotate throughout the film and come up or are referenced with such frequency that it might help to have a map. And while the casting of The Godfather is exceptional in that it uses some truly amazing talents, it is problematic in that some of the roles are cast far too closely to one another. So, for example, James Caan (Sonny) and Giani Russo (Carlo) have some resemblance; I stepped out for a moment and returned during a scene where Carlo is beating Connie and it took me a moment to realize it wasn't Sonny. Even Simonetta Stefanelli (Apollonia) looks like a younger, more tanned version of Diane Keaton. But for the essential roles, the casting is wonderful and Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando are all amazing. Duval plays Tom Hagen and he is respectably smart in the role, embodying a lawyer quite well.
It surprised me to realize how few works I've seen Marlon Brando in before The Godfather. For all of the films I've seen, I've only seen Marlon Brando in The Score and On The Waterfront (reviewed here!). The Godfather is his comeback role and the one that defines him for pretty much anyone born after 1975 or who is not a fan of older movies. Brando mumbles his way through the film as the powerful Vito Corleone, easily establishing himself as one of the most memorable cinematic characters of all time. He has a dignity and strength of presence on screen that never dissipates. In fact, when Vito retires, he manages to change his entire body language and it works.
Similarly, Al Pacino is wonderful as Michael. For all of the problems with the character, Pacino is amazing as Michael. Distinctly different from his role in Glengarry Glen Ross (reviewed here!), Pacino starts the film with Michael as a likable guy who is just trying to avoid becoming like his parents. In those scenes, he is wonderfully casual, he's just a guy and seeing him smile and relax makes him seem like the most unlikely character to go down such a dark path. Pacino is electric as he slowly changes his whole demeanor to become more methodical and cold as the film goes on.
On DVD, The Godfather is packed with bonus features. There is an impressive commentary track that is very informative. In addition, there is an entire disc filled with featurettes on the translation of the novel into the film, the filming of The Godfather, its place in cinematic history and more. As well, there are the theatrical trailers for the movie and extensive interviews with the cast and crew on the effect of the film. Truly this is one of the most impressive DVD sets for a classic film.
In fact, it is just enough to bring up a film that has lousy characters to the status where I can enthusiastically recommend it. The Godfather is close to perfect, but as far as DVD special editions go, it is hard to ask for more.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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