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‘Godfather’ at 45: Coppola Shames Modern Films

Some movies defy a traditional review. “The Godfather” is just such a film.

What do you say about the movie 45 years after it changed the face of cinema? The story is compelling? The actors really nailed their parts? Some of the dialogue feels like it might enter the lexicon and never leave?

The film is enjoying a fresh Blu-ray release courtesy of Paramount Home Video.

The Godfather - Trailer

Any occasion is a good, nay great, occasion to revisit 1972’s Best Picture. Of course, “The Godfather” is so much more than that.

The movie made Al Pacino a star, certified Marlon Brando’s place in pop culture lore and cemented the ’70s as a critical decade for film.

It also would be a chore to remake today, and not for the obvious artistic reasons. Italian-American groups might object to the sinister antics of the Corleone clan (at the time they pressured the studio not to use the term “mafia” in the screenplay). The family’s coarse epithets could rub some social justice warriors the wrong way.

FAST FACT: The film classic hardly looked like a sure thing at first. Francis Ford Coppola initially turned down the chance to direct the film. The studio didn’t want Brando, his career sagging at the time, to play the Godfather. And Robert De Niro’s early casting in the film unraveled.

The film has even less need for women than Don Corleone. Both Talia Shire and Diane Keaton get little to do save wait for the Corleone man to dismiss them, or worse. We all know what happened to Simonetta Stefanelli’s poor Apollonia. Before that, she barely said a word.

The movie would flunk the Bechdel Test. Hard.

And, even in our anti-hero age, the movie makes being a “made man” look… outstanding.

THE GODFATHER | Offer He Can't Refuse | Official Film Clip

What strikes you after watching “The Godfather” again is how vibrant, and modern, every sequence feels. The story moves as if on caster wheels, flowing from one triumphant moment to the next. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s camera reflects a plainspoken, timeless approach. A few sequences shake up our perspective. That only draws us deeper into the violence.

The story touches on fear, grief, anger and recriminations. Name an emotion. It’s here, and captured in a way that’s streamlined and unforgettable.

DID YOU KNOW: Sofia Coppola, the director’s daughter, appeared in all three “Godfather” films. She plays the infant in the famous baptism scene in the first “Godfather” film, an immigrant girl in the sequel and Michael’s daughter in 1990’s “Godfather III.”

We should force modern directors to watch “The Godfather” again, notepad in hand. These are characters you cannot forget, connecting in ways that are authentic and raw. The family scenes, from the wedding sequence to the third act’s baptism pack telling cultural details. They make the shootings in between all the more revolting.

How could such love inspire such hate?

Scene after scene sears in your mind. We forget today’s movies while driving out of the theater’s parking lots. Sometimes even sooner.

THE GODFATHER | Sleep With The Fishes | Official Film Clip

Other notes from a fresh viewing:

  • Indelible Don: Brando’s Vito Corleone has been imitated so many times it’s hard to keep score. Yet the image we keep parodying is forged over a few screen moments. The Godfather gets shot five times early in the film. He’s never the same after that. Yet the strong, transcendent Godfather is etched so expertly it never leaves us.
  • Now That’s Charisma: Al Pacino plays the war-hero son of the Corleone clan. He’s not eager to sign up for the family business, until events force him to reevaluate his choices. This is movie star charisma at full blast, and yet Pacino rarely raises his voice.
  • That score: Quick quiz, what was the last movie with a score you simply had to own? Or a film featuring a soundtrack that you couldn’t shake after leaving the theater? Today, the better soundtracks simply repackage pop ditties (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) or curate lesser-known songs from the past (almost any Quentin Tarantino feature). That “Godfather” score by Nino Rota is mesmerizing.
  • May Your First Child Be a Masculine Child: “The Godfather” could serve as an unofficial guide to being a man. Yes, the patriarchy is strong in the context of the story. Look deeper into the narrative. Remember how Vito Corleone shames the aging crooner (Al Martino) for crying over his sinking career. Or how the Corleone men rally to their sister’s side after her groom abuses her? What about the obligation to save your family when times are tough, as Pacino’s Michael does (even if he enjoys the gig more than necessary)? Young men shouldn’t emulate everything here, of course. These are hoodlums, crooks and killers. And, apparently, not in PETA’s good graces. Still, there are lessons embedded in the film that make it even more fascinating on repeat viewings.
  • They Don’t Make ’em Like This Anymore: Do any modern movies pack the fury, the artistic wonder of “The Godfather?” Can you name one that comes close? The film earned more money than any feature in 1972, and critics tripped over themselves praising it. Our culture is more far more divided now. The biggest money makers are sequels, superhero films and animated wonders. Critically adored films rarely make bank. The 2016 Oscar for Best Picture went to “Moonlight,” which earned a measly $27 million at the box office. “The Godfather” earned $134 million, by comparison.

The Godfather [Blu-ray]” arrives with a solid, if not spectacular home video presentation. What’s upsetting, though, is the complete lack of extras.

Bonus: Here’s an episode of “The Bart & Fleming Podcast” discussing the landmark film.

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2 Comments

  1. One thing I have always disagreed with Coppola on is how he didn’t like the final film. I actually loved this one. If you think of the entire trilogy as an Opera, and how Opera is set up, then the three movies work very well together. The third movie is like the Operatic punishment for all the evil doers of the movie.
    Opera lovers all know how the main villain of the piece usually gets punished by the loss of something that he loves more than his own life. In this case, it was his daughter. That scene of horror and anguish on the steps of the Opera House was some of the best Coppola I have ever watched on screen.

    The one nit I have with casting is I wish that Sophia Coppola hadn’t played the adult daughter. Not only did she not resemble either parent, but she sleep walked through most of the movie until her death scene. But OTOH, she is a great director, and I enjoy watching her movies that way. She could even be as great or better than her Papa.

    I love all three of the Godfather movies. They are best watched (and treated) as a three act opera IMO though.

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