Brendan Da Costa

The Godfather Trilogy Poster

Title: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Godfather: Part III (1990)

 

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

 

Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

 

Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, James Caan, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna & Sofia Coppola

 

Produced by: Albert S. Ruddy, Francis Ford Coppola, Gray Frederickson & Fred Roos

“[…] the

 ever-illusory

American Dream.”

Reel Talk - Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Trilogy

December 12, 2021
by Brendan Da Costa

From the title credits, with the sound of a lone trumpet rising over a black screen, you know that you’re about to watch something great. Regarded by cinephiles the world over as one of the greatest films ever made—second only, perhaps, to Citizen KaneThe Godfather, and its sequels, holds a seminal place in contemporary cinema and culture.

 

Based on the 1969 novel of the same name and its sequels and adapted for the screen by author Mario Puzo himself along with director Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather chronicles the lives of the members of the Corleone mafia family.

 

Given the sheer breadth and scope of the story of the Corleone family, it is possible to analyze The Godfather in any number of ways—and, certainly, over the years film critics have exhausted just about all of them. On the one hand, it is a grandiose and unparalleled epic about crime and justice. On the other, it’s a delicate and intimate portrait of family, values and tradition. And still, it’s a cautionary tale about the nature of power and the power of greed. It’s a coming-of-age story and a quest, a rags-to-riches and a rebirth. But, for all of its fine and intricate trimmings, The Godfather is a story about the most basic and universal of human desires: the desire for a better tomorrow.

 

That The Godfather encapsulates and embodies the universality of that theme is the reason that it is so enduring. It speaks as much to the Baby Boomers who made it as it does to the G.I. Generation of whom it is about and the Millennials who revere it.

“The performances of Marlon Brando […], Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire and Andy Garcia have become iconic…”

Like so many other universally shared hopes and dreams, the United States has trademarked and patented the theme of a “better tomorrow” as the ever-illusory “American Dream”. The hope that hard work will pay off, that honesty and diligence will be rewarded and that our children’s lives will be better than our own. This is most apparent in The Godfather Part II where the backstory for Vito Corleone’s coming to America and rise to prominence is interspliced with the “heydays” of his son, Michael Corleone. Author Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola juxtapose these two stories as if to ask us whether Vito Corleone’s sacrifices for his family bore fruit, whether Michael Corleone is, truly, any better off than his father.

 

Part II of the Godfather Trilogy presents Vito Corleone as the champion of the little guy. As he begins to make moves, we see that he is audacious, bold and daring, quiet, calculated and meticulous. But we also see that, even in his early days, in his efforts to make the American Dream a reality for himself and for his children, he has already sown the seeds of its undoing. As the novel’s and first film’s epigraph reads, “Behind every great fortune is a crime. – Honoré de Balzac.” And, by its own logic, every crime merits a punishment. Inasmuch, The Godfather is as cynical of the American Dream as it is blindly faithful to it—it is as bleak and dark as it is hopeful and light—and it is the tension between these two complimentary and contradictory viewpoints that will keep the heart of this franchise pulsating long past when its creators have passed away.

 

The story aside—if we can even say that—the other elements of these films earn their own place in our cultural history.

Francis Ford Coppola’s direction in both Part I and Part II is divinely inspired and razor-sharp. Coppola carefully calibrated every scene as carefully and meticulously as Michael Corleone himself plotted his next big move. This places the audience firmly in Coppola’s and Puzo’s vision. Considering the length of—and sheer amount of story in—Puzo’s novels, there was ample opportunity for these films to get lost in a haze of their own mafia-propelled bullets. Instead, Coppola’s strong grasp of the crux of Puzo’s Godfather keeps these films carefully trained on the crucial plot twists and the pivotal character events.

 

Cinematographer across all three films, Gordon Willis, pulled off some technical feats but his true accomplishments are artistic. Willis also grasps the heart of the story—the delicate balance between the light and the dark sides of the American Dream—and reflects that on the screen with brilliant silhouettes and highly contrasted lighting.

Despite using a full 35mm, the frame hardly seems large enough to contain the grandiosity of this epic tale—a grandiosity that Willis plays up repeatedly with object-centric wide shots in opulent settings. Even subtler shots feel monumental in their symbolism: a skyscraper towering over a church, a hazy Lady Liberty who is both distant and, somehow, within the reach of a little boy or a family huddled together for a photograph, a clear rift straight down the middle. It’s all very “maestoso”.

 

The music of Nino Rota is equally laced with meaning and has provided mainstream classics such as “Speak Softly, Love” and unmistakable sounds such as the introductory trumpet of “The Godfather’s Waltz”.

The performances of Marlon Brando (who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 45th Academy Awards that he would ultimately refuse), Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire and Andy Garcia have become iconic, resuscitating ailing careers and birthing others all while providing the world with more than a few quotable lines. But, just as the family plays a crucial role in the telling of the story, so too does the ensemble play a crucial role in the success of this franchise—you would be hard pressed to find someone not pulling their weight in Part I and Part II.

 

It’s not really until Part III that the franchise loses some of its endearing Italian charm. The Godfather: Part III is the most polished film in the franchise but the least shiny though it is difficult to blame the film itself. Released 16years after Part II, by the time Part III came out, much of what made the first two films original and visionary had been adopted by and expanded on by other films in the genre such as 1983’s Scarface or eclipsed by its contemporaries such as Goodfellas which was released earlier in the same year in 1990.

 

Part III also fell prey to some of the same trappings of other film franchises in that its tried-and-true story structure began to feel too familiar, entering the territory of the formulaic—a pitfall that has befallen even fellow behemoth franchise, Star Wars.

“”[…] the frame hardly seems large enough to contain the grandiosity of this epic tale…

More nitpicky criticisms land on the casting of Sofia Coppola for the role of Mary Corleone—rightly so as, from the very beginning, it feels like a weird, creepy and misguided instance of pure ego-tripping nepotism by a wildly popular and powerful Hollywood film director to show off his beautiful, barely-legal daughter in an overtly sexual capacity. That is, of course, not the case as Coppola found himself in a last-minute casting bind after losing Winona Ryder due to illness. For all of the criticism that both Coppolas may have received, it is difficult to imagine that even Winona Ryder would have been any more enjoyable in the role as, despite her importance to the film’s story arc, Mary Corleone was a poorly written and wafer-thin character. Even Al Pacino, reprising a role after more than a decade and a half, faltered at times and struggled to delineate between Michael Corleone and Tony Montana.

From the title credits […] you know that you’re about to watch something great.

More nitpicky criticisms land on the casting of Sofia Coppola for the role of Mary Corleone—rightly so as, from the very beginning, it feels like a weird, creepy and misguided instance of pure ego-tripping nepotism by a wildly popular and powerful Hollywood film director to show off his beautiful, barely-legal daughter in an overtly sexual capacity. That is, of course, not the case as Coppola found himself in a last-minute casting bind after losing Winona Ryder due to illness. For all of the criticism that both Coppolas may have received, it is difficult to imagine that even Winona Ryder would have been any more enjoyable in the role as, despite her importance to the film’s story arc, Mary Corleone was a poorly written and wafer-thin character. Even Al Pacino, reprising a role after more than a decade and a half, faltered at times and struggled to delineate between Michael Corleone and Tony Montana.

Fortunately for The Godfather, though it ended on its lowest note, it began on such a high that even a glass-shattering falsetto would feel low in comparison. Part III has its troubles but it doesn’t even come close to ruining, or even besmirching, its predecessors or their legacy.

 

At a time when generational tensions and animosities are high, when the American Dream is more cause for ridicule than reverence and cultural differences and immigration push the limits of our acceptance, we can look back at The Godfather, not for nostalgia’s sake, but for guidance on how we move forward, on how to make tomorrow better than today.