By Megan Reilly
It’s a strange feeling, to approach a canonical film equipped with a pseudo-knowledge of its meaning as informed by parodies and quotes detached from context. I waited twenty-two years to watch a film that ends up near the top of most “Best Films of All Time” lists, so I had to filter my appreciation of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 magnum opus The Godfather through a host of cultural references. I turned it on knowing Tony Montana and Tony Soprano, but not their forebear, Michael Corleone. As I watched Don Corleone’s iconic conversation with Bonasera at the beginning of the film, visual cues from the referential opening of the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing popped off the screen, distracting from the scene’s essential power. I couldn’t block out the sound of Dom DeLuise’s gauze-mouthed impersonation of Don Corleone in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, so Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning turn as the original Godfather was lost on me, a victim to parody.
Amid the sea of elements that satire and homage have rendered cliché, Al Pacino’s performance as Michael stands out in its subtlety, making it essentially immune to attempts to trivialize it, unlike Brando’s caricature. He offers a more nuanced moral transformation than his portrayal of Tony Montana’s descent into violence and vice in Scarface eleven years later, and Michael’s ruthlessness is accordingly more potent than Tony’s. His physicality captures the transformation – from his shiftiness at his sister’s wedding in the opening to his unflinching decision to kill her husband at the end. Coppola introduces Michael as a walking contradiction: a decorated soldier, but a “civilian” among the ranks of the Family. His identity, as it develops throughout the film, hinges upon the relief of that tension; his personal life, revolving around his heritage, comes to align with his military career.
Coppola’s construction of the character, elevated by Pacino’s staid performance, keeps the film fresh forty years after its release. As does his technique – not that Coppola’s ability to wield a camera was in doubt – but the film’s three-hour running time demands some extra visual dynamism. The outdoor shots of the wedding and the Don’s death among the tomato plants are expressive in a particularly frenetic way, exhibiting the influence of European auteurs that characterized the work of many filmmakers in the New Hollywood school. But the film remains a thoroughly American artifact, from Coppola’s meticulous rendering of post-WWII New York to his thinly-veiled commentary on capitalism.
Something holds me back from wholeheartedly endorsing The Godfather, but it’s not a factor of the film’s age. It’s a film about men in which women merely populate the scenery. Not unexpected, and definitely not refreshing. Michael’s Italian wife flits on screen only to be shoved off via car bomb to incite a reaction from him. This moment is partially redeemed by the film’s final shot, a door closing on Diane Keaton’s aghast face as she is denied entry to the boy’s club, and for a brief moment, we occupy her perspective. First and last shots, from Vito Corleone’s perspective to Kay’s. Though considering the film at large, the shot conveys the passing of the torch from old Don to new Don, so I cannot expect Kay to be elevated beyond a mere plot point in Part II. All the same, I will give Part II a try, if only to assess its contested place as the best film of the trilogy. Whether I’ll have the energy to sit through Part III is less certain; I may just fast-forward to Sofia’s scenes.
Megan Reilly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May, and she is currently interning at NPR. Netflix has deemed her taste preference to be “dark, cerebral, foreign dramas featuring a strong female lead,” but she also likes Clerks.
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