Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Godfather / The Godfather Part II

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 2, 32
Year: 1972, 1974
Writer: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (adaptations), Mario Puzo (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan (“The Godfather”)
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton (“The Godfather Part II”)

The first miracle of “The Godfather” is not that we come to care deeply for its characters, but that we care about them in the first place. They are, after all, essentially horrible people who torture, murder and maim to ensure their power. And yet here is a story so well told on every level that the viewer cannot help but engage himself fully. I disagree with every decision Michael Corleone makes over the course of this movie, but I understand them and ultimately sympathize with him.

The film tells the story of the dying away of one generation of a mafia family bleeding into the maturation of the next. The central figure of the dying generation is Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Godfather of the title, and the at-first-unwilling man at the center of the new is his son Michael (Al Pacino). Both men have their own set of rules and morals and, as the film progresses, the two value sets begin to mix and corrupt one another. The screenplay is by Mario Puzo (based upon his novel) and the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola and it is ingenious in the way it invites us slowly but seductively into its world. We go in with our own opinions about the mafia, but as film progresses, it slowly argues for our sympathies and, by the halfway point, wins them.

Just look at the way Puzo and Coppola structure and pace the emotional arcs of the characters. The movie opens with the wedding reception of Don Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire). We see the “family” as just that—a family. Our first introduction to Michael is with his date Kay (Diane Keaton), who knows nothing about Michael’s history or mafia ties. Kay is our real eyes into the family, but more on her later. After Michael tells Kay the lengths his family goes to, he assures her: “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” This intrinsically puts us on Michael’s side and we remain there as he begins to fall back into the dirty work of the Corleone’s.

Even as he does that, we still understand and care. After all, the first thing he does is save his helpless father’s life after an assassination attempt. How can you not identify with that? He takes vengeance for the attack by killing two men. I don’t agree with it, but understand his anger and can only imagine how I would react if someone tried to harm my mother. He is exiled to Italy and only returns to America after his wife and brother Sonny (James Caan) have been murdered, and by that point the spiral into corruption is perfectly set-up. And we really liked his brother, who was gunned down “Bonnie and Clyde” style on his way to rescue his pregnant sister from her abusive husband.

This leads into another reason why the film works so perfectly: The world is completely closed. Martin Scorsese must have modeled his classic “Goodfellas” (also on AFI’s Top 100) on this same idea. Every character we meet and interact with (beside Kay and Michael’s first wife) is either a member of the Corleone family, a rival to their family or a person in awe of their power. With no voice of reason saying “Hey guys, maybe you shouldn’t murder a bunch of dons during a baptism because it’s in pretty bad taste and you might end up in hell for it,” we question the morality of it less. As stated previously, they have their own codes and values which are set up clearly in the very first scene, and on those terms “The Godfather” plays completely fairly.

Coppola has made a career of painting outside the lines, and his use of the large and talented acting ensemble here is rivaled only in his other work. Pacino is the heart of the movie and gives a fascinating, multi-layered performance, but those around him are just as mesmerizing. I’m also amazed that, after all the lampooning, Brando’s performance still holds up as well as it does.

But it’s the smaller performances I want to focus on. Though the movie is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene, one could argue that the two most iconic moments in the film are the horse head in the bed and the “Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli,” murder. Neither involve the main cast and the movie is better for it because it underlines that the mafia is, in fact, a complete world. The Corleone’s have their interests in everyone we meet, but they exist and are human beings as well. This “spreading the wealth” approach (sadly almost abandoned in current cinema) is a trademark of Coppola. Look at most of his major work and the first scene you think of won’t involve the film’s headliner. When I think of “Apocalypse Now,” I immediately think of Robert Duvall wanting to go surfing. When I think of the undervalued (and ripe for rediscovery) “The Cotton Club,” I think of the scene where of Fred Gwynne breaks Bob Hoskins’ gold watch. When I think of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” I think of Sadie Frost in that funereal dress, her face white with death.

Now more about Kay. As I wrote earlier, she is the fresh eyes that represent us, always just outside the Corleone family and never able or willing to take that final step, even after she marries Michael. She appears to be a strong woman from the beginning, and yet the final scene of the movie is her believing Michael’s lie that he had nothing to do with the death of his brother-in-law. Does it make her look gullible for buying into his lies and, by extension, his sins and corruption? Of course. But then again, haven’t we, as the viewers who have deemed this one of the masterpieces of all film, done the same thing?

"The Godfather Part II"

Here’s a Catch-22 if I’ve ever seen one: In devoting a third of “The Godfather Part II” to flashbacks that track the rise to power of Vito Corleone, writers Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed, insert in the film a flaw that can’t help but hurt the pacing and build of the other story they want to tell: Michael Corleone’s embracing of power in exchange for the final vestiges of his soul. And despite creating that problem, this sequel/prequel simply would not work without them. The movie needs to show Vito’s humanity (well, “humanity”) in direct juxtaposition with Michael’s inhumanity for the impact to be deeply felt.

Vito’s story begins with the murders of his father, brother and mother at the hands of one of Italy’s wicked dons. He travels to America, grows up to look a lot like Robert DeNiro and, frustrated with the mafia presence in his slice of New York City, decides to take things into his own hands.

Michael’s (Al Pacino again) story begins with a celebration of the first communion of his son. He’s still married to Kay (Diane Keaton), but things between them are icier of late. After an assassination attempt, Michael goes to great lengths to uncover the turncoat in his family while also securing a big business deal in Cuba and being investigated by the government. Phew. The suspects include his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and even his underboss Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall).

At some point in the movie, Pacino’s eyes completely drain of emotion and go dead, and they stay that way in virtually every other scene (the one exception is his fury at learning Kay had an abortion). How could this man we saw courting Kay and smiling widely at the wedding reception that opened the first film have turned into this soulless monster? If Kay is indeed our eyes into the world and the Corleone family, then she becomes just as suspicious and horrified of Michael as we do early on.

Vito sensed something in Michael that reminded him of himself, and yet the man we see before us has embraced all the unseemly horrors of the mafia and forgotten entirely the lessons and charity his father showed. After Sonny was murdered in the first film, Vito took the step to end the cycle of revenge instead of just wiping out everyone who had set their sights on his family. It seems Michael cannot comprehend this.

I write those statements not as a criticism, but in admiration that Puzo and Coppola could tell this story so unflinchingly. We inherently knew where this was heading from the middle of the first film, and the murders Michael oversaw at the climax of that film confirmed it, but here the two show just how far he’ll fall on this journey. There’s a beautiful, heartbreaking scene that takes place after the Corleone matriarch has passed, where Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) gets on her knees and begs Michael to see Fredo (the man who betrayed him) again. Michael seems touched and embraces his brother once more, and we dare to hope, even though his dead eyes tell us we should know better, that he can change. And then the movie climaxes with Fredo being shot while Michael watches.

This is all very Shakespearean, and Coppola wisely knows that even in the most dire of his tragedies, there must always be some form of light to distract us (even momentarily) from the descent into hell. This can sometimes be a supporting character who ultimately becomes a hero (“Macbeth”), a comic-relief character (think of Falstaff) or some really dark humor (Tamora eating her sons in a pie in “Titus”). Puzo and Coppola supply us with Vito, brought wonderfully to life by De Niro in a performance that doesn’t strive to mimic Brando’s work but instead capture the spirit. Vito isn’t exactly a saint, but in comparison to Michael he might as well be. He murders a don who is the bane of the community and steps into the role, genuinely trying to do good for those who need his help. Of course, in the end he returns to Italy to exact a really nasty revenge on the man who killed his family, but the next moment is of Vito and his family on a train, together and loved. It was revenge, yes, but the story ends with the hope that Vito would grow into the man we meet at the beginning of “The Godfather.”

The screenplay is excellent, with many wonderfully written scenes and enough callbacks to the original (both subtle and blatant) to give us real impact from these characters’ journeys. And yet neither mini-film could exist on its own. The false optimism at the end of Vito’s story would ring false, and Michael’s story would be too oppressive for us connect emotionally.

Watching the movies back to back, I can’t help but be a little let down by the scope of the movie. I’m sure the budget for this movie was much higher than the original thanks to all the praise and box office and Oscars and prestige and stuff, but I can’t help but feel all the add-ons are a little…off. The original seemed epic despite taking place mostly in dimly lit offices, restaurants and back-rooms. It went “big” only twice, with the wedding (which was juxtaposed with the intimacy of Vito’s office) and our first view of Michael in Italy. In Michael’s story there’s a communion party (a parallel to the wedding in the original), multiple parties in Cuba, a riot scene for good measure and Senate hearings. In Vito’s story there’s the arrival in America, the introduction of his neighborhood, a parade and other large street scenes. Perhaps the most telling example of this is that Michael’s office has a huge window that overlooks a lake. Where are my beloved Venetian blinds? I truly missed the intimacy of those smoke-filled rooms, and think many of those parties and parades could have been excised without losing much from the final product.

The heart of the movie comes when Fredo, thinking Michael has forgiven him, explains to Michael’s son how to fish. He tells about how his father took the boys fishing, and no one caught a bite except for him. The way he describes it…you inherently know it’s the proudest moment of his life, even though it was decades prior. For that small scene, our hearts break for Fredo and we completely understand what it must have been like for him in a family that included stronger, smarter men like Vito, Sonny and Michael. Without this scene, his death at the end means nothing and Michael’s descent is just that. But, because of this scene and because we like Kay so much, the film is a tragedy. The two movies connect so well in telling a complete story of how a good man can be corrupted absolutely, even with the best of intentions. It tells its story, manages to affect us even though we know it shouldn’t, and in the end resonates deeply. What more could you want?

My Score (out of five): “The Godfather” - *****
“The Godfather Part II” - ****

1 comment:

The_Awesometeer said...

I recently watched both these movies for the first time. I really liked them both (I write a blog about the AFI as well). I really enjoyed Part II just because of the differences between Vito and Michael. I gave both movies high scores but for me Godfather Part II is just better.