A twisting, dramatic masterpiece whose success relies on perfect casting and Mario Puzo’s excellent novel.
It’s hard to judge a film like ‘The Godfather’, especially for someone of my generation. Since its release in 1972, The Godfather has accrued a legendary status; it’s difficult to watch a film that is often touted as the best of all time with an open mind and no preconceptions. However, after watching The Godfather many times and reading the novel on which it was based, it’s clearly something very special. The film is a sprawling epic that rewards the viewer with a savagely twisting, multi- faceted plot. It’s a mobsters’ coming of age tale that’s laced with tension, deception, tragedy, violence and death.
Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is introduced on the day of his daughter’s wedding, a very special day in Sicilian tradition where the father of the bride is to deny no man a special favour. The beneficiaries’ utmost respect for the Don is illustrated in the opening scene, their displays of courtesy coming in the form of personal address and greeting rituals. The Don is a man of respect and principle, a man who puts emphasis on what’s fair, denying to avenge, for example, a father’s anguish over the rape of his daughter by means of murder – ‘That is not justice; your daughter’s still alive’.
In other circles however; the Don is not so respected. Vito Corleone is an old fashioned Don, what is referred to as a ‘Moustache Pete’; he is reluctant to delve into the business of drugs, unlike the contemporaries from the rival New York crime families. The Don’s refusal turns the relationship between the Corleones and many of the other families sour. It is how the ensuing violence is regarded as just ‘business’ that is the cold, harsh danger of the film. Its depiction of violence is visceral and often occurs when not expected. Rather quickly, the Corleone criminal empire falls apart; the next generation having to revitalise the family and reclaim their place at the top of the five families.
The film is probably the most perfectly cast in history. The primary characters of Vito (Marlon Brando), Sonny (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), Fredo (John Cazale), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are all expertly interpreted from Mario Puzo’s magnum opus. The scores of supporting actors are also without fault. After reading the novel, it’s remarkable how faithfully envisioned the characters are in the film, which is thanks to a combination of uncanny physicality and astute interpretation.
The Godfather is a brilliant adaptation of Mario Puzo’s masterfully told story; the 1969 novel was written with such an authenticity that it almost seems like non-fiction in certain passages. I think it’s true that when one thinks of a gangster, they picture the omnipotent Vito Corleone sitting back in his chair, his glum face contemplating with that infinite sagacity and authority.
The Godfather is a true spectacle in both mediums; deciding which is best is a difficult task. The only aspect that I felt was stronger in the book was character development. The character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is given greater depth in the novel; Michael’s transcendence seeming comparatively abrupt in the celluloid interpretation. The character of Luca Brasi is abundantly more powerful in the book, whom whilst is an ally of the Corleone family, is penned as an ominous villain with a dark, brutal secret.
The film, meanwhile, essentially depicts Brasi as an oaf. This depiction is understandable, Brasi is an old-timer who is firmly within a closing chapter of the Corleone family, however I was surprised by how markedly less intimidating a figure he was. Additionally, many of the supporting characters are also given interesting back stories by Puzo, notably Captain McCluskey. Of course, that level of intricacy is possible in a novel, while a film could easily become bloated with such detailing.
Ultimately, ‘The Godfather’ is a film made by a highly talented crew who combined the seminal prose of a skilled author with brilliant direction, perfect performances, effective cinematography and the utterly beautiful, iconic music of Nino Rota and Carlo Savina to produce one of the best, well rounded and moving films ever made. It is a film that is wholly deserving of the term ‘required viewing’.