Whilst this film is number 2 on the top 1000 films of all time that’s not why I’m reviewing it. It’s my favourite movie ever. As I have also read the Godfather, I will be comparing the two throughout this review. And also it’s just a great film, isn’t it?
Meet the Corleone family, your average Italian-American family consisting of family patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brandon,) his wife Carmela, their eldest son, the hot-headed Santino ‘Sonny,’ (James Caan) their middle son, the weak and uncharismatic Frederico or ‘Fredo,’ their youngest son, the quiet and reserved Michael (Al Pacino) and their youngest child Constanzia ‘Connie,’ who is constantly beaten by her husband Carlo Rizzi. However, the Corleones are a family with a twist. Vito Corleone is the head of one of the biggest Mafia families in New York and Sonny is his underboss. Whilst Michael Corleone begins the film as distant outsider who despite having no wish to become involved in the family business, progressively becomes more embroiled until he eventually succeeds his father as boss of the Corleone family. In Michael’s succession, he is assisted by family consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall,) the three caporegimes Peter Clemenza, Salvatore Tessio and Paulie Gatto and the family’s violent enforcer Luca Brasi.
This film is number 2 on the top 1000 films of all time only beaten by the Shawshank Redemption (click here to read my review) and I’m just going to come right out and say it. The Godfather is a better film and is more deserving of the number one spot. No disrespect to Shawshank which is a great film in its own right, but the Godfather engages with so many different issues and themes that it works on a much deeper and more detailed level than the Shawshank Redemption.
The Godfather’s presentation of its central theme, family, is one of the best parts of the film. It simultaneously sanctifies the family, where members are not only loyal and protective to each other, but also to outsiders, especially the German-Irish Tom Hagen. These members then use this loyalty to justify their violent and destructive behaviour. Vito Corleone has the power to grant favours for his close friends and family, regardless of their immorality. Sonny Corleone beats his sister’s husband after he finds out that she is being abused by him. After Michael is punched by the corrupt police captain McCluskey who is being supported by the Tattaglia family, the Corleones respond by killing the son of the Tattaglia boss.
After the Tattaglia family in conjunction with the Turkish drug baron Virgil Sollozzo perform a failed assassination attempt on Vito Corleone, Michael who hitherto has been unwilling to get involved, willingly volunteers to shoot Sollozzo along with his bodyguard the corrupt police captain McCluskey. All of these men justify their actions through the pretence of protecting their families. This then raises a great moral dilemma for the viewer. How far would a man go to protect his family? Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread if it’s to feed a starving family? The Godfather completely subverts the notion of the family being a place of sanctuary and I think that’s one reason why it works so well. It takes the viewer’s expectations and completely turns them on their head.
Another great thing about the Godfather is its authenticity. Everything just felt real from the setting to the props to the dialogue to the costume. I really felt like the film-makers had put a lot of effort into making everything realistic as possible, even if the level of violence is somewhat dramatised.
The characters and characterisation also really helped to add to the authenticity. Great long passages in the book are devoted to explaining about characters like Sonny, Vito and Michael, yet within the film, the same level of detail is conveyed within about half the time. This is partly due to great script-writing, but also to great acting. Marlon Brando is brilliant as Vito Corleone. Even if you have to turn your volume to maximum to even hear him, he conveys perfectly the cool, calculating manner of Don Corleone. In actuality, I think that Marlon Brando’s quietly-spoken dialogue really added to the character. Don Corleone is man of persuasive logic who rarely makes threats or raises his voice or loses his temper. Through how Marlon Brando whispers, Don Corleone’s calm temper and disposition is conveyed brilliantly.
In the book, a detailed passage is dedicated to explaining Sonny’s short temper, yet this is conveyed succinctly in the film, when Sonny smashes the camera of a photo-journalist who gets a little nosy at his sister’s wedding. This moment was reportedly improvised by James Caan. The second son Fredo features even less in the film than he does in the book, but this fits in well with how he is described as uncharismatic and weak.
Al Pacino is also great in this film, as it documents how his character Michael Corleone is transformed from quiet outsider to a ruthless Mafia Don. Pacino portrays this transformation so well that it really is remarkable to behold. Another great example of transformation is how Vito Corleone is transformed from the calm yet unrelenting Mafia Don to nothing more than a frail old man. All credit to Marlon Brando for portraying this transformation so brilliantly.
The film was also interesting and engaging throughout. Each idea and theme was explored in turn and never did they become muddled or confused. Surprisingly for a film as long as three hours, the pacing was really good and it never felt like it was running on for too long or that the narrative was becoming stretched.
And lastly, there is no way I can write a review of the Godfather without talking of the music. The theme tune for this film, scored by Nino Rota, is just magical. It captures everything the Godfather is about. It’s dark, eerie, ambiguous, melancholic, subtle yet refined. As I’ve been writing my dissertation, I’ve been listening to it on repeat and it has proven to be great study music.
But I do have a couple of tiny bugbears. Firstly, during a war meeting, two fish wrapped in Luca Brasi’s bulletproof vest are delivered to the Corleones. Sonny Corleone screams “what the hell is this,” before Clemenza responds “it’s a Sicilian message: Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” I just don’t find it realistic that Sonny would say this considering that he has been in the Mafia since he was a young man. I think it would have been much better if Michael, who is more unfamiliar with Sicilian symbolism, asked this.
I also think that Paulie Gatto is too young to be a caporegime, especially with how, in the book, a big fuss is kicked up about Tom Hagen being consiligieri, due to his German-Irish ancestry and also how he’s only thirty-five. However, I am just nit-picking here and neither of these points really warrant severe criticism.
I could be a massive book elitist here and talk about how the film differs from the book. However, for the most part they are quite faithful to Mario Puzo’s original text and the changes they do make are mostly for the better.
The book begins with a lengthy description of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera standing in court waiting for the two young men who have beaten his daughter to be sentenced. To his disgust they are set free and he resolves to see Vito Corleone who he hopes can deal out some rough justice. The film instead opens with Amerigo Bonasera saying “I believe in America,” before explaining how he and his family moved to America as they genuinely believed they could make a better life for themselves. I loved how the film opened on this point, as it engages with the theme of the American Dream. During the early 20th century, there was an influx of Italians immigrating to America under the promise of the American Dream, before being disillusioned with the harsh reality. Amerigo Bonasera immigrated to America to provide the best possible life for his daughter and was rewarded by his daughter being brutally beaten and almost raped by two young men.
The beginning of the book is further changed when, during his sister’s wedding, Michael Corleone, acting as an exposition device, explains Mafioso terminology, such as Consigliere to his girlfriend Kay Adams. Whilst this gets a little lengthy within the book, the film punctuates the exposition well with scenes from the wedding.
Another major change is the almost complete omission of the character Johnny Fontane, as well as the complete omission of his singing partner Nino Valenti, who other than the famous horse’s head in the bed scene, plays little purpose within the film. Whilst the book focuses on Fontane’s backstory and his failed marriage, the film completely omits this. I argue this is for the better, as Fontane is mainly tangential to the main narrative. The film also omits the backstory of Vito Corleone, although from what I remember, this is touched on within the second film, which I will of course be reviewing.
When Vito Corleone is attempting to broker a peace with the mob families, the book gives the backstory of every single one of the families, which the film omits. I think that if the film had talked about every character in detail then this would have slowed up the narrative and added unnecessary information.
Whilst I could go on and on about how the film differs from the book, the only change that annoyed me was how the film hardly mentioned Sonny Corleone’s mistress Lucy Mancini. After Sonny is killed, the Corleones take care of Lucy by sending her to Las Vegas where she begins a new relationship with Doctor Jules Segal, who is also omitted. I don’t like how this section was cut, because I feel that it’s a perfect example of the loyalty that the Corleones pay to each other. Whilst, Lucy is nothing more than Sonny’s mistress, the family still goes to great lengths to make sure that she is taken care off.
This film is intense, engaging, informative and interesting. It interacts with so many themes and ideas, but never once does it become lost or confused. The cast are all brilliant as is the characterisation and characters. Again, no disrespect to the Shawshank Redemption, but never has a film been more deserving of the number 1 spot on the top 1000 films of all time than this one.