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Francis Ford Coppola’s film ‘The Godfather’ is an epic movie based on Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’. It is considered a masterpiece of art and has been used as a template for developing other ‘gangster’ movies. This one film series set the pattern for later mob movies like Goodfellas and TV series like The Sopranos. It elevated the gangster/mobster movie from being a run of the mill good guys versus bad guys scenario into a complex and layered sort of epic that seems to whisper of times long before when emperors and kings ruled. Coppola draws us back to an era in which gangster groups controlled some of the major towns and cities in the United States, taking up residence and establishing roots in New York and Chicago. It also speaks of the atrocities such mafia groups were routinely committing in order to secure and maintain influence and gain ultimate power in the societies in which they formed and grew. The movie’s director Francis Ford Coppola has received numerous awards for sincerely and realistically portraying the ‘gangster’ character in the movie. The goal of this analysis is to depict the many aesthetic cinematic feats attributed to ‘The Godfather’ movie. Specifically, it will focus on its cinematography, lighting techniques, editing style, sound, camera techniques, character portrayal and unifying theme, in an attempt to further improve our understanding of the depth of the movie and develop and appreciation of its unique filming techniques.
The Godfather is a family drama – it doesn’t just deal with a mafia ‘family,’ but with the actual family structure, the Corleones. We see how their conflicts and struggles all play together: which brother will succeed the patriarch when he dies, how they’ll conduct the family business, how their marriages and relationships are sustained or destroyed and ultimately the choices each individual character makes in order to remain within the “family” circle.
The Godfather is a gangster film because, well, obviously, gangsters. But it’s more than just street folk attempting to realize the American Dream. The Godfather gives us a glimpse of the mafia as an illicit business venture, interwoven into the fabric and history of America itself, and subtly commenting on the dark side of the American Dream; the sheer struggle of immigrants in a nation of immigrants, all searching for the promise of a better life. The Godfather has to do with the experience of immigrants — though not an accurate portrayal of the Italian-American experience, as the vast majority of Italian-Americans weren’t connected with the mafia (a negative stereotype). Still, the story arcs that don’t involve murder and other organized crime, speak to the broader themes of struggling to find a foothold in a new land and climbing the ladders of family and society to build the legacy that every man, or at least men of those times, dream of.
‘The Godfather’, is a term for a mafia Don (invented by Mario Puzo) and a symbol.
The Godfather is a total authority, a leader, a head of his household, a king. This is not a democracy, but a monarchy, with one king to rule them all, and the intrigues and rebellions that this entails. The Godfather is about one man, Vito Corleone; a man with a dream for a successful future, building an empire from scratch and then retaining that position and figurehead status for one of his sons to take his place.
You can take the title to refer to either Michael (the son) or Vito (the father): Michael ascends to the throne, while Vito gradually passes from leadership. The meaning of the title of the film, and what or who it represents, evolves as well. Vito is an original, classic Don, unwilling to deal drugs or to become involved in the more nefarious aspects of criminal enterprise. Michael recognizes that he needs to use an elaborate viciousness to get ahead and stay one step ahead of his enemies and competitors. Simultaneously, the Godfather in all his facets and roles, isn’t just your normal criminal: He’s a figurehead, and a foundation trying to preserve an antiquated idea of tradition and order within the constructs of an ever changing and evolving society. The Godfather movie chronicles the successes and failures of that attempt and the evolution of the classic crime family. While in general, people don’t murder their business competition, unruly family members or personal enemies — a lot of people do struggle with trying to retain generational and family traditions and keep the past alive in an ever changing and growing modern America. The Godfather Part II would make this theme even more obvious, depicting Vito’s trials and travails as a young immigrant.
What Coppola attempted and by all accounts achieved, in all aspects of the film portrayals, fluidity, and cinematography, was a sense of authenticity at a time when it seemed excessive or over-the-top. He expertly recreated a classic Hollywood ambience — a true to life recreation of a world of intrigue and excess and its complex and most often fraught relationships. Throughout the film, a certain understatement in character portrayal matches the understated exertion of influence by Coppola in the making of it. From the hard and fast control of the camera to the exacting and sometimes brutal screenwriting, Coppola delivers a bevy of deeply emotional content.
For example, at the moment of Vito’s death, Coppola cuts to a more distant shot. The camera focuses on the tomato garden, within the garden lies Vito’s body. The image of Vito lying on the ground, the foundation of the garden denoting Vito’s role as the foundation of his family and of his empire. He has given himself completely to the survival and success of his legacy – his family and his business. There is an inherent understanding that, even at the portrayal of his death, this one scene doubles as a testament to and illustration of his life. Vito has worked, sacrificed, celebrated and grieved, all in tending to his garden. By planting, growing and meticulously caring for the seeds he planted long before he lays the foundation for not only his generation but for those to come after him. Coppola reminds his viewers as they hear the wind blowing and the birds chirping that in spite of the darkness and violence, this is the circle of life. The cycle is complete.
Additionally, the precise lighting effects, or low-light effects to be exact, are a credit to the talent and expertise of cinematographer Gordon Willis. This technique, with its dramatic use of darkness and shadow, sets a carefully controlled or measured mood that informs even the least expecting viewer of the depth and gravity of the events transpiring before them. It is this consistency of tone and expectation that weaves together each movie into one unified saga.
Coppola made “The Godfather” in a time when authenticity and depth were in high demand for critics and the average filmgoer alike. The breaking down of traditional Hollywood norms and conventions, while liberating to many filmmakers had left a longing for the old ways and styles and the void was filled by Coppola. Coppola’s well-honed style, was neither excessive or devoid of substance; he employed the elegance of plain human behavior with a subtle nod at Mob hierarchy and violence to say much while saying very little. The famous horse-head scene, (early in the first film) never becomes ironic, never invites a suspension of belief, but remains a detached and almost scholarly commentary on the reality of that grossly romanticized lifestyle.
Concluding, we can digest the entire saga as one that speaks rather eloquently, and vividly, to the changing of seasons, life and growth and struggle, success and failure, ups and downs, beginnings and endings and of that inherently human desire to build something in our lifetimes that allows us to remain in some fashion long after we are gone, handed down to our own children and from them to their children.
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