The Godfather at 50 – Coppola’s magisterial study of power is an essay in stately pace, mood, texture and moral ambiguity
“Conscience – That stuff can drive you nuts”.
About 20 years before the Godfather, its star uttered those prophetic words in On the Waterfront, a film about conscience, loyalty and betrayal. By the time of the Godfather, it’s ironic how conscience, a rare commodity among men wielding power, building dynasties and shaping destinies, has turned a full circle; in the hands of these men, it has become a personal tool, to be used to one’s advantage. These underworld figures and crime lords diligently provide comfort and security for their families and close friends; yet this conscience is juxtaposed with dishing out swift justice, retribution and bloodshed to other families and their cohorts. This ultimate of all paradoxes, replete with contradictions and moral ambiguities, lies at the heart of the film. These men have conscience when it suits them as borne out by the way it is emphasised during the film several times; “It’s nothing personal, strictly business”- even if the price to be paid by some poor soul is death.
Francis Coppola’s great triumph is to turn these men into pillars of the community, devoted and upstanding family men, men of honour and stature, men of dignity but to be feared, valued but not to be messed with or disrespected; yet within them resides a duality of purpose, a kind gesture, a nod of understanding co-existing with the threat of violence never far from the surface. They are the living embodiments of the dichotomy that characterises these men, forever on the edge: good and bad, family men not above depriving other families of their menfolk, making wives widows, children orphans, wresting territories, squeezing the business of rivals and making them poorer. It’s not personal, even if a little blood is shed and violence is used; it’s always about being at the forefront, not lagging behind and perceived to be weak, but seen to be ahead of the curve.
When the film opens, there is a blank screen, no fanfare or loud music or a cacophony of sounds. We are in the study of Vito Corleone and the visitor speaks the words “I am an American”, clearly a source of great pride and achievement for him, having come from the island of Sicily to a land where hard work will be rewarded with a thriving business, a home, children, friends and respect within the local community. Right from the outset, we are privy to a tour-de-force of film-making- it is deliberately slow, unfolding almost in slow-motion, beautifully observed with both detachment and intimacy; it is quiet, unforced but purposeful; characters are allowed to breathe and speak their dialogue, their lined and nuanced faces observed as if it were a painting; they are not still, but filmed as if they are. In this shuttered study in late morning or early afternoon, one by one the characters are introduced and depart as it they are on stage. Business is taken care of on the day no Sicilian can refuse a request. Loyalties are reaffirmed; friendships are formed and consolidated; sensitive matters are tackled and gratitude expressed; grown men are chastised for lateness and disrespect; the adopted son of Vito is berated for crying like a woman after being dropped from a forthcoming film and told to be a man.
The attention to detail is quite remarkable as is the absence of shouting or swear words. The dialogue has clarity, every word can be heard given that the film was made in 1972 and diction and enunciation mattered before dialogue became inaudible as in modern films. Brando dominates the scene so effortlessly, without seeming to do anything at all; having taken care of all business in a tactful, intuitive and perceptive manner, he walks out of the room to share a dance with his daughter on her wedding day and the scene draws to a close. It feels like a chapter in a book, so complete and final that every word on the page is read, every description is absorbed, every paragraph is devoured. There is nothing we have missed as the darkness of the study gives way, in a beautiful piece of editing, to jaunty, leisurely piece of music as we arrive on a sunlit morning in Hollywood on the following day, not only a different part of the country, but a different world.
The whole film unravels in this seemingly timeless manner, via a series of immaculately crafted, painstakingly textured scenes to give them a real, authentic look, almost dream-like, but without appearing illusory. These scenes have the intimacy of a documentary newsreel with the participation of actors. It’s like an invitation to a private screening, with the viewer in the privileged position of an honorary guest, without the need for a dress code, or the incentive of a multi-course menu with unlimited wine on offer served by bowing, attentive waiters.
Like his compatriot Sergio Leone, Coppola seems to have the gift of freezing and expanding time as he tells the story of a family in the aftermath of the second world war, between the years 1945-1955; there are a multitude of lead characters and supporting cast of associates. The illusion of slow-motion allows the scenes to segue into the next one, at their own unhurried and studied pace, each one complete in its expository arc and structure, whether set in day-time or night, containing violent episodes, family gathering or discussion of business with the executive order coming from the Don as the last word. Far from detracting, this works to the film’s advantage; in the bubble of its own universe, in the grammar and structure of its compositions and framing, in giving the actors space and room to inhabit their characters and move like pieces on a chess board, Coppola achieves a cinematic apotheosis. Like Leone, he didn’t just love making this film, but was in love with the idea and process of making a great film.
At its heart, the Godfather is a family drama, with the men providing for the family and the women taking care of only domestic matters. it is noticeable Vito Corleone’s wife shares a brief moment with her husband, appears in a family photograph, reluctantly agrees to a dance with a relative and answers the phone once. She is a marginal figure, having completed her journey as a wife, mother and grandmother but with no further part to play in the family business. We learn that taking care of business includes settling of old scores, revenge, keeping top politicians on the payroll, expanding interests to include gambling and alcohol, but the Don draws the line at drugs – “dirty business” as he calls it when walking away from a deal. He craves legitimacy, but consents to adding controlled drugs to his portfolio in order to survive and not be left behind. At the meeting with the five families, he agrees with the other patriarchs to bury the hatchet, to put their personal losses behind them, in order to achieve lasting peace.
But once Michael ascends to the throne, he brings his ruthless ambition, in all its cold-blooded precision, with him. The cloak of conscience sits lightly on him as he dispenses swift justice with speed. On the morning of his nephew’s baptism, to whom he has agreed to be a godfather, the leaders of the rival families are killed in a beautifully staged sequence, the camera intercutting between the two scenes, the juxtaposition of life and death, in the church and outside it, with the close up of their conductor signalling the psychopathic behaviour of a man no longer living in his father’s shadow or honouring his pledge to end violence. Next on his list is his brother-in-law Carlo for betraying the family and playing a part in Sonny’s killing. The fact that his nephew will have no father and his sister is soon to be widowed doesn’t enter into the equation at all; later he lies to his wife Kay about his role in the killing of Carlo, having no qualms about it at all. Conscience can be abandoned at will, discarded as if one removes a speck of dust from a coat. The man sitting at the head of the table is wielding absolute and total power, his judgment unchallenged and unquestioned; it’s just normal business, eliminating enemies who get in the way or cannot be trusted. Clearly, he is a man for all seasons and occasions, utterly cold and ruthless in his dealings.
Ultimately, Michael learns quickly about survival, staying ahead of the game, building on what his father told him about identifying a traitor: the one who arranges a meeting, he is the one, he is the traitor in the family. He, too, is disposed of in the end; in Michael’s sphere, there are no more loose ends left when the door to the study is closed. Like his father before him, Michael must have had a copy of Sun Zhu’s the Art of War on his bedside cabinet. In it are the words that people in his line of business must memorise, a mantra for perpetuity and beyond:
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.