How does one describe The Godfather to someone who hasn’t seen it? There are many of my friends who have never seen this classic. The only thing that I can think of to describe this film is one word: family. The Godfather is a film that is different from other gangster films; there is little violence, not much swearing, and drugs are only implied. This film is built on a strong script combined with a powerful and outstanding direction from Francis Ford Coppola and the actors who dominate the screen are perfection. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall lead the film and the characters they portray not only feel like real people, but as the films plays out we come to understand them and even feel sympathy towards them. The Godfather was released in the spring of 1972. Prior to the film being released, the book, written by Mario Puzo the year before, was already a massive hit, so the hype and expectations were already in place before the film hit the big screen. It was a major success and became the highest grossing film of 1972 and at that time was the highest grossing film of all time. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards winning only three: Best Picture for Albert S. Ruddy (Producer), Best Actor for Marlon Brando (refused), and Best Adapted Screenplay for Coppola and Puzo. The film was praised by critics who often cited it as being the most influential film ever made, especially in the gangster genre. Critics also highly praised the writing, the acting, the direction by Coppola, and the realism of its story. As Hollywood Reporter film critic Arthur Knight said, “This is a curious film. One comes to understand, even to condone, the activities of the Godfather and his clan.” The late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both highly praised the film calling it, “A masterpiece.” Siskel even mentions that the film is far greater the book.
I saw this film for the first time back in high school and was captivated by it. It has been well over ten years since I viewed the film so seeing it on the big screen was nothing short of spectacular. After seeing the film, there is lots to talk about: the story and how everything unfolds, the memorable characters introduced , as well as the Italian criminal terms first mentioned in the novel such as “consigliere” and “omerta.” I loved the pacing as we are led from one seen to the next as I became glued to my seat as everything unfolds. The amount of violence in this film is very minimal compared to what we’ve seen in other gangster films over the past 20 years.
We start out with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), head of the family, the Don. He’s quiet, he listens, and acts with careful thought. It’s the day of his daughter’s wedding, Connie Corleone (Talia Shire). It’s hard for him to join in the wedding ceremony as business keeps him occupied. Tom (Robert Duvall) is the adopted son of the family and is now a lawyer or consigliere to the family. He seems to be the wisest of all the brothers and is most reminiscent of Vito. Michael (Al Pacino) enters the ceremony with his non-Italian girlfriend Kay-Adams (Diane Keaton). (There is a great scene of Michael and Kay when they are talking about how a business deal was conducted when his father and Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) made a deal for his godson Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino) to pursue his own career ambitions by bribing the band leader he was working with, as the family says, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” He is quick to mention that is how his family works, but not him.) We also have the hot-head brother Sonny (James Caan), the oldest brother and the one to assume the role as the head of the family. He is tough and reacts instead of thinking about the consequences of his actions. The last brother is Fredo (John Cazale), who is insecure and is considered a weak link in the family.
Talking about the story will do the film no justice or honor, one must sit through the film to fully grasp the storyline and all that happens. Loss of life happens, bad decisions are made, and lessons are learned. After seeing the film, it makes you want to talk to someone about what you just watched. For me, watching the film is so immersive because all the characters feel real. There are moments in the film that are very intense that make you hold your breath. The scene where Michael visits the hospital after his father is almost killed is one memorable moment because we know there is danger just around the corner. Not only are we worried about the assassins coming, but also the police and whose payroll they are on. The film talks about the other Five Families in New York and what positions they have in the film. Marlon Brando commands the screen with his presence and the usage of words his character say are great. The scene where he meets with the heads of the Five Families is one of my favorites.
Ok, let’s get into the characters in the story. We have Michael who doesn’t associate with the family business and wants to lead his own life. Seeing the development of this character is essential to the story and Al Pacino was the perfect fit to portray this person. Sonny is the hot-tempered brother who acts instead of thinks and James Caan is phenomenal in his performance. I really enjoyed watching Robert Duvall portray Tom, the smartest of the brothers and is the wise man to think about what to do when the times comes. His entry in the beginning of the film especially the horsehead scene is one that is powerful as it is shocking. Despite the actions that happen throughout the film, one thing is for certain, these characters are well established, well-acted by the actors, and feel somewhat real. We can all imagine having a hot-head for a brother, the one who doesn’t want to be involved until he is forced to, and one to hold everyone together. These characters are as important as the Godfather himself.
The idea that this film focuses on family is something that is the most memorable. While, I enjoy action on screen, with The Godfather, the violence in this film feels necessary and in some sense of the word, justifiable. It’s the actions and decisions that lead to the path of bloodshed and loss. It feels real as the people that are killed in the film gives us a feeling of good when the right person gets hit as well as sadness when someone we’ve followed during the film is gunned down. Gangster films such as Goodfellas, Casino, and even the HBO series The Sopranos all pay some sort of homage to The Godfather. The focus on family, the characters and their backstories, and the result of the decisions that lead to either good results or bloodshed down the line.
Goodfellas told the story of Henry Hill and how his life was changed by the mafia and the life that he lived to tell. Casino is a story of how gambling is controlled and operated, and The Sopranos is the struggles of one man who is in control of the family business. While each film has it’s own take on the mafia/gangster genre, there are moments that we can realize that reminds us of The Godfather. Always listen to your family, never betray your family, and most importantly, it’s just business. It’s hard for me to watch these films or the iconic television show without remembering such words from the Corleone Family.
It’s amazing that this film is now 45-years old and yet it still stands the test of time. The film doesn’t show any sign of age and still is relevant today. Its story is something that is hard to beat and the pacing of the film is not rushed or slowed at all. There is one long sequence where we see Michael has fled to Italy and met a pretty woman Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) whom he later marries. These sequences includes what is happening to Michael while not rushing to all the chaos that is happening back in America. It’s a poignant scene that is as important to the main plot and wouldn’t be the same if it was cut. The Godfather is still one film that has aged well because of its writing and acting. The fact that the film is referenced by other source material such as using the Italian criminal words, using the term Godfather as head of the family, and even Tony Soprano enjoying the film himself, is something that pays respect to this film; only Tony didn’t give an opinion of Goodfellas throughout the show.
Whether it’s your first time seeing the film or who knows how many times you’ve viewed it, The Godfather is a film that will hit you with emotion, provide you with some memorable scenes of dialogue, and suspense that will have you on the edge of your seat when the time comes. The Corleone family may be a work of fiction, but the film offered us a story that catches our attention and gave us sequels that continued the saga to epic proportions. It’s one of my favorite trilogies ever made because each film is perfectly paced, written excellently, and casted greatly, although Part III did have some issues. Nevertheless, The Godfather is considered one of the greatest films ever for a reason. It’s about family, understanding the development of characters as events unfold, and of course a musical theme that is hard to forget once you hear it.