American Monsters in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather

By Daniel Garrett

The Godfather, Parts I and II
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Paramount, 1972 and 1974

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s novel, is a masterpiece, and its deep engagement is one of both style and content: its story is not only about the induction of one young man into a crime family—there is something more elemental beneath that, something about innocence and experience, idealism and pragmatism. The Godfather is one story featuring an Italian crime family, told in two parts (two films that can be screened or seen as one), with three main narrative sections; and it is about the inevitable discovery of the deep cruelty and violence of the world, and accepting and mastering those realities. A young Italian man chooses what is over what could be: he betrays his best self and his love and even members of his family to survive in a cruel, violent world. He becomes the cruelty, the violence. Everything is done in the name of family, but it is hard to see or know what private family life is worth—that seems small and mundane in relation to family as a business enterprise, in relation to money and power, with much remaining unspoken (well, not exactly unspoken: spoken and ignored).

In light of the fact that little could be said to be at stake—the son of a major criminal becomes a criminal, and he and other criminals try to kill each other, one would think that the story would have less grasp of the imagination of the viewer, but its grasp is secure thanks to the attitude, atmosphere, and tone of The Godfather. The film’s language, its style of telling its story, is compelling, satisfying; and the film makes the viewer comfortable in a volatile world. The locations, whether in New York or Italy, high life or low, seem historically accurate, and vivid, and the acting is confident, earthy, and the often slow pace natural. A sense of reality is created, and of drama within that reality. As well, seeing some people outwitting other people remains exciting: often what makes a film intriguing is the strategic use of intelligence, though that is not necessarily what we are thinking about as we watch. One writer that I admire, Pauline Kael, liked the film; and another, James Baldwin, disdained it, seeing in its violence a betrayal of human nobility.

Part I is focused on an old, powerful criminal, a don, and his granting of favors before his daughter’s wedding, the wedding activities, and the don’s subsequent rejection of a business proposition, a rejection that produces a violent reaction that leads to his war-hero son, for whom there had been high hopes, becoming involved in the criminal world. Part II is about the childhood and early life of the old criminal, and also about what happens after the old criminal’s promising son becomes part of the criminal world. Marlon Brando is, of course, impressive as the old don, Vito, Don Corleone, a father of three sons (Santino, Fredo, and Michael), a man who has achieved his own kind of wisdom, though his bit of buffoonery before his final demise is trademark (was Brando’s insistence on humor a way of giving a character more life, or a way of mocking everything—or both?). James Caan as Santino, called Sonny, is good too, intense, tough, humorous, though his body being torn apart by bullets—the jerky gestures—have become inspiration for both actors and satirists. It was Al Pacino as Vito’s son, the young then aging, more lethal Michael, and Robert DeNiro as young Vito, the struggling immigrant who becomes the young don, who were most impressive—uniquely attractive men and greatly resourceful actors. Their intensity and ability to suggest movement from morality to immorality, with its physical and spiritual effects, are remarkable: depth and strength accrue to their intelligence and masculinity, while lights go out in whatever areas in their personality house sensitivity or spontaneity. However DeNiro as Vito is able to indicate some amusement and sympathy that Pacino’s Michael seems too cold and too shrewd for, really too small for: the new don, Vito’s son Michael, is a more inventive criminal than his father and a smaller man. The Godfather is a great story about an Italian family and the creation of American monsters.

The women—Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) and Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton)—who are aware and have some emotional or spiritual life are the ones who suffer: they cannot quite make themselves small or simple enough to fit into the boxes made by others for them. Individual wants or needs are ignored if they do not fit into family business plans. The girlish Connie is introduced to a young man by her brother Sonny, and after her marriage she is a mousey wife with a rebellious temper, and following her husband’s death, enacted by the family in vengeance, she is glittering, driven, wild, and then when her mother dies Connie accepts regret and responsibility. Diane Keaton as Kay is very pretty, prettier and possibly more traditionally sensuous than usual, and her voice is mostly controlled, not fluttering or flighty, but that voice does not have as much energy as I imagine it should (I wonder if Keaton and Woody Allen, for whom Keaton portrayed an eccentric Annie Hall, had a rapport built on mutually recognized depression). Kay cannot accept a compromised life, and the constant threat of violence. When she faces Michael late in the story, Kay’s face is full of awareness and apprehension, and the viewer intuits affection, before Michael closes the door against her. Family business could be an allegory for business everywhere, only more bloody. The Godfather was violent for its time, but its violence does not feel as painful or seem as gruesome as some of the excruciating violence we see now in film. It did raise the level and believability of film violence, and remains echoed in current films (it seems as if the tolerance for violence, as well as vulgarity, is always being broadened).

The Godfather dramatizes the fact of act and consequence: one family does something, and another family reacts. It is survival won and lost with amoral intelligence and assaultive force on a brutal level. One watches the two parts of The Godfather entertained by its story, and feeling as if something more significant is being touched.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. His comments on Francis Coppola’s The Godfather appeared on the pages of his internet log, The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker, devoted to visual culture.