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Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are two directors that have redefined American cinema numerous times, their new wave films evoking not a form of destruction, but a rejuvenation of traditions and conventions, proposing a visionary type of cinema that Raymond Durgnat describes as fusing ‘Hollywood expertise with authentic, edgy Americana, which was long marginalised in Hollywood, though not completely banished.’ Although what probably ties the two directors so closely together is their similar backgrounds, and subsequent inspiration for their films, which is rooted in an understanding of the Italian American culture. And since they are both of Italian descent, something that was most representative of America for them growing up was the concept of the gangster. Thus, it is their revival and reinvention of the gangster genre that keeps them so tightly bound, two of their most defining films, The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990), carrying a mutual interdetermination through their depiction of this distinctly Italian American underworld. The gangster figure is one deeply engrained within American cinema, and especially the New York cultural and physical landscape. However, this character is not one grounded in reality, but rather an artificially constructed idea of a figure of power. This is important to recognise going further with this essay, because, while both being near flawless films, The Godfather and Goodfellas show a different approach in their representation of the gangster; and that is largely due to Coppola and Scorsese’s filmmaking style and thematic approaches. I will, therefore, explore the themes and styles of both films, by showing their differences, similarities, as well as how those affect the overall understanding of the film and our general idea of the gangster.
Before anything else, it is important to point out that, while both representatives of the gangster genre, The Godfather and Goodfellas are two entirely different films in terms of substance, tone and mood, which makes it rather hard to compare them. As Carl Freedman reminds us that Scorsese and Coppola ‘examine the workings of the Mafia from two radically different coigns of vantage’. Hence, one of the main reasons and clear differences between the two films, which fully changes the context in which they are to be read and understood, is that one centres around the Mafia, while the other deals with (actual) gangsters; one focuses on a “wiseguy’, the other is a Don; one portrays the untouchable, the puppet master, the string puller, the other a criminal, the extorter, the street fighter, the oppressor. Goodfellas offers a view of the mob from below, while The Godfather’s perspective is one from a level of superiority. Essentially, as Freedman argues, ‘Coppola’s interest in the Mafia is macroeconomic (and macropolitical), while Scorsese’s GoodFellas is very much a street-level film, with a keen interest in the microeconomics of organised crime’.
Thus, their approaches in genre also differ: The Godfather is a drama, a Shakespearean tragedy; Goodfellas is a dark comedy mixed with elements of action melodrama. Goodfellas works on irony, while Godfather works on tragedy – things that will certainly play a major role in understanding the films’ themes and style, as we sill see further on. Likewise, both films are based on books. But while Coppola’s film is an adaptation of a fictional story, Goodfellas retells the story and life of an actual gangster. So even though The Godfather seems like the more “authentic” one, given its seriousness, dramatic overtones and thematic density, it is Scorsese’s film the one that wins the battle of authenticity, introducing a level of realism to an otherwise fictional genre. In their discussion over which one is the better mobster film, Jeff Labrecque and Kevin P. Sullivan agree that ‘Scorsese’s film took all of the honour, glamour and shine out of the world Coppola created and served up a piping hot plate of reality’ instead; but also that ‘The Godfather is modern Shakespeare, while Goodfellas revels in the ugly underbelly of mob life.’ Thereupon, Coppola approaches the gangster genre in an attempt to provide a profound commentary on American society, while Scorsese is focused on offering a more cynical and ironic critique of the individuals that inhabit this criminal underworld and their respective lifestyle. Moreover, The Godfather is the story of a regal crime family, while Goodfellas is the tale of a rat and his overtly violent friends.
Thematically, the films follow relatively similar themes of power, loyalty, respect, the importance of traditions and a study of masculinity, although, Scorsese and Coppola approach them significantly differently. Goodfellas is primarily governed by the theme of power, violence, masculinity and bourgeois materialism, while The Godfather deals with the theme of family – more specifically, the implications of the patriarchal family – justice, revenge, morality, nostalgia, deceit and descent, as well as multiple contrasting binaries, such as the conflict between business and personal matters, public and private spheres. In many ways, Coppola’s film presents a more universal set of themes, as it exploits timeless themes typically utilised in nineteenth-century Italian operas , and adopts them within a grittier context of danger. Whilst Goodfellas works and builds its story on a much more distinct set of ideas, one that, as mentioned before, applies more to an individual rather than a collective. In short, The Godfather deals with much broader subjects, while Goodfellas tackles more specific issues.
In Scorsese’s film, the theme of power is inextricably linked and generally expressed through the central ideas of money and violence. In the gangster world of Goodfellas, having money represents power, and power is often displayed through violence. These wiseguys are fundamentally fueled by greed, materialistic desires and an appetite for destruction; they crave money-power-glory and violence is their way to get it. The gangsters of Goodfellas sustain the power that they have because they are always willing and prepared to exert brute force and regress to violent behaviour when necessary. In Goodfellas, violence is an omnipresent part of these people’s lives, and Scorsese uses it thematically in order to emphasise the vile and vicious nature of the gangster. The film’s depiction of violence is extremely straightforward and unapologetically graphic; it comes unexpectedly, impulsively, almost naturally for the wiseguys, who kill with such ease it becomes terrifying. Richard Brody states that violence is a crucial part of their existence, inasmuch as ‘the exertion of power in the Mob sphere is bluntly physical.’ He continues by saying that Scorsese ‘dares viewers to enjoy these scenes of violence — and presents this violence in a manner that is not at all judging or condescending but, rather, understanding and sharing the gangsters’ part in the animal element of human life.’ On the other side, the men of The Godfather also resort to 18 violence and murder when taking care of business and solving their problems. Although we never actually see our main characters enact violence compared to Scorsese’s protagonists; just as we rarely see the Corleones directly involved or in the vicinity of any form of violence. And even if we do (eg: the baptism scene), it is depicted in such an operatic and glorious way that we are prone to forget about all of its negative connotations.
Since they are both gangster films, they are naturally going to address the theme of masculinity, considering that the gangster figure has forever been linked to the idea of masculine authority, as well as reflected for generations the ‘changing notions of manhood’. Janani Harihar suggests that, in The Godfather, Coppola ‘equates masculinity with power’, insofar as the film’s male characters ‘use their bodies in different ways to secure their patriarchal positions at the head of the family’. The film emphasises the idea of masculinity crisis through its depiction of interactions between male characters, Harihar noting how ‘Vito uses restrained bodily movements to exert influence’, Sonny exerts his masculinity through ‘big, brash, impulsive actions’, while Michael uses ‘his intelligence and audacity to command authority.’ In the world of The Godfather, masculinity is affirmed through titles, rankings and positions within the Mafia family. For instance, it is only after executing all heads of the other mob families at the end of the movie that Michael’s masculinity reaches its full potential; his “adversaries” have been removed, his masculinity is fully restored, and so he is then honoured with the title of Don. In Goodfellas, on the other hand, masculinity is (not surprisingly) established through brute force and violence, exposing a somewhat ‘old-fashioned, ethnic mode of masculinity,’ similar to Sonny’s. Noah Berlatsky argues that, in many ways, Scorsese’s film acts as ‘a parable about the ugliness of masculinity’, as being a man in the world of Goodfellas is equivalent to being ‘a murderous, conscienceless monster.’ In other words, Scorsese pursues a masculine aggression, while Coppola resorts to masculine affirmation.
The most predominant theme of The Godfather, however, is family. Richard Combs identifies “family” as the thematic core of the film, the artistic ground plan on which the entire Godfather trilogy was built, ‘the source of one of Coppola’s acknowledged strengths, the creation of a rich human tableaux.’ The Godfather gives so much importance to the idea of family, its traditions and customs, that this loving attention and intoxicatingly nostalgic treatment of it all can easily transform the film into a highly romanticised portrayal of the Mafia. Goodfellas, however, gives little importance to family values and traditions, instead focusing on the depiction of Paulie’s gang as the real family, whose customs should be respected and obeyed.
While prioritising more or less the same set of themes, stylistically, the two films stand as polar opposites. As mentioned in the beginning, the most striking difference between the two is the way in which the directors portray the life of the gangster. And seeing how The Godfather deals with the elite of the Mafia, and Goodfellas focuses on the life of a mere wiseguy, it is obvious that the former would have a more elegant style and almost operatic quality to it, while the latter tell the story in a more pragmatic, visceral manner.
Goodfellas’ most dominant characteristic is the use of voice-over, inasmuch as the story is told entirely from the perspective of our protagonist, Henry Hill. On a surface level, this would render the film as highly subjective, seeing how the narrative is filtered through Hill’s own vision of the mob. Scorsese wants his audience to be inside the head of the characters, so that we better understand their motivations and driving force behind every scene. We experience the film through Henry’s eyes, or sort of an extension of his character, as the monologues that accompany the visuals make it seem like we are watching the footage alongside Henry himself.
Still, Scorsese makes us wear the shoes of a self-conscious observer that soon ‘turns out to be a somewhat passive protagonist, detached from the events although implicated in them.’ What we see on screen right after the opening credits is a shot of 12 year old Henry’s spying eyes watching ‘Paulie’s cabstand through the windowpanes of his bedroom’. And from then on, despite seeing Henry grow up in front of our eyes, it is like we never left his head, more specifically his viewpoint; we are stuck in that childish, foolish gaze throughout the whole film. That being the first shot in the movie’s narrative construes Henry’s future actions as purely juvenile. But this first-person narrative, as Freedman carefully points out, is ‘balanced by a certain degree of objectivity that it is possible to see beyond the protagonists’ perspective as well as from the latter.
In his discussion of Goodfellas, Maurizio Viano quotes Robert Kolker’s observation which argued that ‘Scorsese’s films create a tension between two opposing cinematic forms: the documentary and the fictional. The documentary aspect offers the possibility of a seemingly objective observation of characters, places and events, whilst the other demands a subjectivity of point of view’. He then continues by adding that Scorsese’s stylistic stamp is seen in the inability of this subjectivity to detach itself from the objective construction of reality. Hence, Scorsese employs the use of documentary-style devices, such as voice-over narration or intertitles, as well as French New Wave filmmaking techniques such as sharp editing, fast-paced shots and fourth wall breaking, all serving as a constant reminder that we are watching a film. In that sense, we could say that Goodfellas is ‘a piece of documentary film fiction, a docudrama of sorts.’
With The Godfather, on the other hand, Coppola takes a more distant, clearly objective approach. The film is highly novelistic in scope and structure, acting more like a novel than an actual film, whose shot transitions are smooth, softened through lap dissolves, emulating the delicate and intimate nature of page-turning. The Godfather is, therefore, rightfully described as cinematic literature, one that emphasises ‘lavish, operatic ritual over plot and fast action’. Not only that butCoppola’s conventional style of filmmaking echoes classical Hollywood, through its inheritance of ‘the traditions of the novel, theatre and especially opera and movies’.
Another importantly distinct characteristic of The Godfather’s style is its cinematography of shadows, which is fairly absent from Scorsese’s film, which utilises more vibrant and saturated colour pallets. Marcia J. Citron suggests that the film is visibly marked by ‘a dark-and-light contrast that is so operatic and so openly symbolic that it perfectly expresses the basic nature of the material.’ In this way, seemingly simple conversation scenes (such as the opening sequence) are given more gravity and density, allowing the viewers to make up their own meanings behind every frame. Likewise, Coppola employs the use of sepia tones and gold-tinted lenses, which alludes to a longing for the past, as well as signals the story’s possible romanticisation and glamorisation of the Mafia. This “colouring”, however, is mostly noticeable in the scenes from Sicily, implying a yearning for not only the past, but a lost culture – which now seems to be solely reduced to an association with the crime underworld.
In conclusion, the differences between the two films are easily discernible, but the two directors’ approach in theme and style is what makes the contrast even more clear. Both films belong to the gangster genre, yet Scorsese and Coppola make sure to show that they are far more than that, as they add layers of meaning to almost every aspect in the film. We are introduced to stories of moral ambiguity, poisoned righteousness and violent entitlement. In The Godfather, everything is justifiable (either pure business or for the family); there is always a sensible reason behind everything. The characters do not believe to be doing any wrong, and we are also shown that they are not – we are provided with reason. In Goodfellas, the characters too believe that there is nothing wrong or amoral about their actions, but yet we are shown no reason. The sole motivation appearing to be simply a thirst for power. Instead, Scorsese shows us the way it actually is, using Henry’s voice-over as a way of juxtaposing his words with the visuals, simultaneously disclosing how these people involved with the mob are actually feeling about it, while at the same time showing us how we should actually see it and take it: that murder is never justifiable, that violence is not always the answer, and that conflict should not be resolved by force. Although in the world of The Godfather, it might just be. Still, we might argue that there is no real accounting of how the Mafia actually works; that it remains a mystery to the world, because after all, that is what they truly want.
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