To sit down and write a review of The Godfather is an intimidating undertaking to say the least. The words ‘classic’, ‘masterpiece’, and ‘work of art’ are all regularly exchanged in discussions of this film, which is by many considered to be one of the greatest works of American cinema. I’m almost terrified to try to review it because of its almost sacred place in the hearts of many cinema fans. For me, it is the last film remaining I’m truly ashamed to say I’ve never seen. Possibly it’s its three hour run-time that prevented me from watching, or possibly it’s just the fact that The Godfather holds such an important position in the history of film that, like this review, I was intimidated by it. But now I’ve finally watched this Francis Ford Coppola classic, even though I think it’s the kind of movie that takes three or four watches to truly appreciate, I believe it lives up to the title of ‘masterwork’ in every way.
The Godfather follows the story of one New York’s five major mob families in the post World War II era, the Corleones. The aging patriarch of the family, Vito, played by Marlon Brando, must pass on the family business to his son Michael, played by Al Pacino. The story isn’t complex or full of twists. It doesn’t use fancy gimmicks to grab your attention. The story confidently stands tall on its own, supported by strong, well acted characters. As the family, and the organized crime syndicate it controls, begin to crumble around them, we don’t turn to guns, explosions and the desolation of enemies like in a typical gangster film. The violence does come, but when it does, it’s meaningful in way that is never seen in the crime films of our time. Instead, Coppola lets us truly understand the relationships that give these violent actions meaning. This is why the Godfather could never be made today. When the violence comes, it’s not exciting or thrilling in the typical way, it’s a necessary evil, with lives and relationships at stake.
These tension of the various familial dynamics are portrayed beautifully by Brando and company. This is clearly evidenced by the 1972 Academy Awards, which saw Brando take home the statue for best Actor, and Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall all nominated for their supporting roles. Each performance is nuanced and delicate, yet they all stand out on their own quite prominently. Especially in Brando’s case, where Vito Corleone’s signature accent and mannerisms have become staples of modern popular culture. None of the characters are overtly likable nor unlikable. They’re complex and varied and each actor is able to deeply capture this. After the film is over, what you’ll remember most is the brilliant characters and the talented, committed actors that portray them.
Going back to any movie over 40 years old, I always fear it will look dated. Maybe it was just the quality of the restoration of my bluray, but the Godfather is not one of those movies. Its post-war setting is done as beautifully and effectively as any contemporary big budget film. The tone and atmosphere strike your eyes and ears through impeccable production design. The sets, costumes and vehicles capture the image of late 1940s Los Angeles so well it’s difficult to believe the film is a period piece. All of these elements are captured by Coppola through amazing shooting. Each frame of this movie could be hung in a museum – and they probably are. The often dim, foreboding lighting works well to compliment all the other famous visual characteristics of the movie to create the distinctive atmosphere the Godfather is so famous for. This is all to say nothing of the famous soundtrack, composed by Nino Rota. The sweeping horns compliment the visuals to illustrate audibly what the visual elements work together to create.
It’s very difficult to say anything negative about the Godfather, a film so steeped in praise it would almost seem blasphemous to do so. I suppose at points, I caught myself yawning while watching it, and it’s three hour run time is still somewhat repelling, but to let those things get in the way of taking in this masterpiece would be an unforgivable mistake. The reality is I just loved the experience. It’s an incredible film that has clearly influenced so many that followed. It deserves its place atop the mantle of Hollywood greats. The Godfather deserves to be in front of everyone’s eyes at least once. For many, like myself, it needs to be enjoyed several times to truly appreciate.