Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.
What Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films portray is a perfect amalgamation of the magical and limiting aspects of Hollywood cinema in a perfectly composed, morally ambiguous fantasy. I’m only discussing the first two here because of their proximity to one another and them embodying a 70’s theme and aesthetic that prided on American stories – Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, Patton, Breaking Away, Dog Day Afternoon, and Rocky to name a few – make them distinctly different for what I want to say than the third movie, which seems like a forgotten stepchild of the 90’s.
What has become a set of iconic scenes that are impossible to parse from the indelible effect they have had on cinema through the ages, The Godfather is at its heart an epic fantasy. Not in the literal genre sense obviously, but in that it indulges itself and us in a magnanimous, exaggerated story of generational angst, wealth, and power. It has the structure of a medieval tale of kings and princes, and the heart of a valorous Biblical journey of self-realization and yes, destiny of a chosen son.
It’s tinged in sepia colored dust and highlighted by shadows indicating that it’s not only a dark tale, but an old one. The movie consists of all the things that have become clichés in such type of cinema – a father and son relationship, battered women, family above everything, gambling, cops, gang wars, meetings in Italian restaurants – and creates a fully formed world so secluded from world from the rest of America that it may as well not even really exist. The intimate camerawork, highlighted by closeups and staging actors as if in a void, creates a sinister edge to every scene. The result is emphasizing that the world this film depicts is one where no one safe and every decision has high stakes.
Marlon Brando’s immortal performance as Don Vito Corleone has become such a mythical element to the film that to evaluate it in any way is impossible. It’s cloaked in decades of imitation and iconography that make it inseparable from our collective understanding of what a mafia person looks, acts, and thinks like. In the same way, Al Pacino’s equally valorized but perhaps more plain-looking Michael has become the idol of many young men with an irrationally proud sense of self, and, on the other side, the poster-child of everything wrong with toxic masculinity. Both Michael and Vito are perfect fantasy characters, the idealistic versions of what an average American man may consider the ideal version of himself – so perfectly represented by Tony Soprano’s self-assessment as the “the strong silent type.”
It has the structure of a medieval tale of kings and princes, and the heart of a valorous Biblical journey of self-realization and yes, destiny of a chosen son.
It’s impossible to be anybody from The Godfather, except perhaps Fredo (John Cazale), who embodies such open fear of inadequacy that it renders him the most relatable character in the series on any realistic human level. It’s also nearly impossible to consider the movie any pure condemnation or valorization of the mafia because it exists self-contained in the world completely apart from a greater American experience. It is filled with blood and death and suffering and some sense of politics, but unlike Lucky Luciano, a film which Normal Mailer called the actual “greatest mafia movie every made,” it doesn’t wade into the mafia’s actual greatest achievement – ingratiating itself with the American state apparatus. In this sense, it’s better to consider Coppola’s films as a mafia Game of Thrones. This is not a condemnation, in fact, it’s what makes the Godfather movies so timeless as rewatchable epics.
This ideal is achieved perfectly in The Godfather: Part II, which to me is the best of the series.
Coppola was given much more creative control from the studio for this film, and it did wonders. His decision to do a simultaneous sequel-prequel, thus juxtaposing the father, Vito, as a young upstart who makes his way to wealth and power and the son, Michael, who is losing his grip on it and lamenting the burden he has taken may be Coppola’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker and storyteller. The same visual elements exist from the previous film, however the compositions are more wide-angled, and there is a lot more space to the scenes. Coppola is clearly more enamored with world-building than the previous movie.
The sequence where Vito, Clemenza, and Tessio, who would grow up to be top members of the family, discuss the plot to kill Don Fannuci over glistening plates of spaghetti Bolognese, is perhaps American cinema at its peak. Spoken almost completely in Sicilian dialect, the scene is a masterclass of character development, setting up the early dynamic between the trio, which we had already seen the fruits of in The Godfather. Robert DeNiro is particularly great in this scene, and his command of tone and nailing the personality details of a young Vito overcomes his discomfort with an authentic Sicilian accent. Bruno Kirby is also fantastic – fast-talking and shoveling pasta with glee and poise throughout the whole proceeding, despite the terrifying prospect of killing one of the neighborhoods most feared and respected bosses. It’s clear how and why he became Vito’s most trusted arm later in time.
Part II justifies its greater budget and more broad scope in a way that most sequels don’t. Necessary to the expansion of the Corleone ‘empire’ under Michael and his insatiable need to rise and grasp more power, we are brought into more decorated and complex worlds. In turn, the flashback sequences perfectly exemplify what the first film had missed, which is a sense of connection and confrontation of the immigrant experience in America, although it only briefly remarks on this. Vito quickly ingratiates into his own crew and becomes more secluded in his existence. We also get more Fredo to the benefit of the story, as his demise and crisis in the film is the closest this trilogy comes to revealing the darker humanistic elements of their vaulted characters. John Cazale is impeccable and heartbreaking in a sequence where he slouches in his chair emptying his heart of the buried troubles of most men in America who fear their own inadequacy – “I can handle things, I’m smart! Not like everybody says!” he screams.
The Godfather trilogy, and particularly its first two films, are iconic and ingratiated in the American cultural discussions of cinema and art so deeply that they’re hard to parse from their legendary status. They’re timeless epics that serve the viewer and the cinema-lover better as tall tales of kings, not as any introspective look at America or the ‘immigrant experience.’ From an artistic standpoint, their place in cinema is unquestioned in terms of its indelible effect on culture. One can gather that if the apex of Hollywood studio filmmaking in all its capitalist limitations, can be capped at using the visual tools of cinema at the service of a story, I can’t think of many movies that do it better than The Godfather.