My wife and I have decided to watch some of the films that top the charts of best ever movies on lists such as meta-critic and IMDB. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy tops almost every list but (I am ashamed to admit) we had never seen it. This is a situation that is now being rectified. In this brief review i will focus on the first of the films:
As you are no doubt aware, having high expectations is generally enough to kill the experience of watching a film. The Godfather, in its narration of a transition in generational power in the Mafia, deserves all of its accolades. In fact, in our present era, when special effects has displaced character and storytelling (consider Avatar), this 1972 movie is a reminder of what filmmaking can be.
So much has been written about the film so i shall try to keep things brief. It is perhaps most famous for its iconic performances and its genius one liners that have become part of our everyday vernacular. You would have to be martian not to have seen Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone “make them an offer they can’t refuse” but the real thrill is to see the emergence of the then very young Al Pacino, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton and James Caan (among others). More than the acting, it was the pacing of the film that gave it its true power. We are so used to films that rush us by, stirring our adrenalin but giving us no time to think. This film, in contrast, proceeds at a more brooding pace, made all the more potent by its emotive score.
There is so much that we might discuss in terms of its themes. I was especially struck by the exploration of evil. What one expects of a Mafia film is gunfire and murder and gore (none of which is lacking), but The Godfather explores the interplay between this evil and the values of family. It is strange to find oneself rooting for cold blooded killers, but you do so because you are invited to consider the world from their perspective; to appreciate the bonds of loyalty and respect that help to explain (although not justify) the family’s action. There is, thus, a certain ambiguity about evil or, rather, a mix of good and bad in us all.
It is fascinating to consider the seduction of evil. Al Pacino plays the Godfather’s son, Michael, and he starts the film as an American hero soldier who has determined to reject the family business. As the movie proceeds, however, he finds himself ineluctably drawn into the family’s crises. I am reminded of the theology of original sin. We are all, despite our best intentions, victims and perpetrators of sin, caught up in a relentless and escalating cycle that is beyond our ability to control.
What becomes clear as the movie progresses is that the goodness of family is corrupted by the exercise of power. There is something significant in this insight – that the pursuit and exercise of power is the root of evil. When defending his father to his fiance, Michael notes “My father is no different than any other powerful man — any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president” and in so doing he is endorsing the machiavellian, utilitarian approach to ethics and life that is to become his undoing. It is precisely this way of life that Christianity rejects. Jesus, in taking the path of Golgotha, shows us that true ‘power’ is the self-sacrificial surrender of power. Only on the cross – and in our preparedness to give up our power – can the relentless cycle of sin be overcome. Only in this paradoxical approach to power can we truly act responsibly for other people, and protect the values of love and family.
More could be said. I am certainly interested in your response to The Godfather. As far as I am concerned, it deserves its five star rating.