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It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

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A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

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Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

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And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

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If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

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