(This is the first entry in my series of Greatest Films Ever Made – a list of personal recommendations. Keep checking out this space from time to time for the entire series)
Once in a century, comes a multigenerational classic that transcends the barriers of popular entertainment to give us a crisp, revolutionary visual marvel of such magnitude, that it simply leaves you awestruck over the sheer audacity and startling brilliance of its filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) based on Mario Puzo’s bestseller is just that film – a riveting and superior gangland epic featuring the hitherto-unseen life of First and Second-generation Italian Americans and their struggle for survival amidst the threat of an all-out mob war. It is quite surprising that a film which intimately explores the life of the mafia crime syndicate can be so focussed on the aspects of ‘family’, and convey its entire story through a series of family feasts, weddings and baptisms. And at the heart of it all is a father-son relationship unlike anything the audiences back in the day had ever seen before.
It was just the other day when I was rewatching an episode of Seinfeld which ended on a high point when Michael Richards’ Kramer performed a rather off-the-cuff impression of Brando’s Don Vito. It was a rare instance of a classic imitating a classic, and I’m not even going to talk about the number of references in The Sopranos – but it is really a testament to how much The Godfather has influenced pop culture in the last 49 years. It took me back to the first time I picked up the DVD of this 1972 film knowing that it was renowned for being one of the best films ever made. I’ll simply say that my fundamental understanding of what ‘cinema’ could and should be, was never the same after that day, as I’m sure has been the case with many ardent cinephiles of the last three generations.
Let’s talk about the plot, then? Well, the premise is fairly simple – a refusal to stain the Corleone family name with drugs results in a series of rather unfortunate events for Don Vito Corleone, played in an Oscar-winning turn by Marlon Brando. At a time when it is expected that his eldest son will pick up the mantle, things get even more ugly and complicated for the worst, and it is up to the youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) – the idealistic war hero who was as far away from the family business as possible – to enter his father’s world and take all the necessary steps to safeguard the Corleone name, as well as the Godfather title.
It’s hard to find a single moment in the film that can be termed as ‘not great’, or a single performance that can be termed as ‘non-stellar.’ It is also rare for a film to make an audience effectively root for an idealistic character to be broken down and be corrupted the way Michael Corleone is through the course of those three hours, and yet – that is exactly what Coppola manages to succeed at. Featuring what is arguably a career best performance from Pacino, The Godfather effectively showcases Michael’s entire transformation from “That’s my family, Kay – not me”, all the way to him becoming the mob boss at the top of the food chain. It is topped, perhaps – only by the great Marlon Brando playing the titular character in a career-defining comeback performance after a decade-long hiatus of sorts. Every other performance in the film, from James Caan’s Sonny, to Talia Shire’s Connie, Diane Keaton’s Kay Adams and especially Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
From its very first minute, the film utilises Nino Rota’s hauntingly beautiful score in combination with Gordon Willis’s breathtaking cinematography and Dean Tavoularis’s stunning set design to give us this epic 175 minute opus. It’s no secret that there was a lot of off-screen drama during the production of the film, with several accounts of studio interference, Pacino almost getting fired and other budget-related struggles that continued for months. And despite all of that, there isn’t a single ounce of these problems evident in the final motion picture.
So it all boils down to one question. If you haven’t seen it already (gosh!), is The Godfather (1972) still in this day and age – worth the next 177 minutes of your life? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ – and I should mention that you’ll not be able to simply stop at this Best Picture Oscar Winner, as you’re bound to follow it up directly with The Godfather Part II, which remains to be one of the best sequels ever made, and the first one to end up winning the Best Picture Academy Award like its predecessor. I am pretty sure that if it ever came to it, I could go on for hours analysing every frame of this genuine Hollywood landmark and explaining why it remains to be one of the best films to ever hit the screens, and obviously – one of my all-time favorites. But for the interest of keeping this article as short and sweet as I can, I’ll simply conclude by saying this – you’ll find it rather hard to not be seduced and captivated by this enduring masterpiece. The honest truth is that I can probably never sell this film to you as well as I want to. But at this point, I’d like to think everyone knows where Luca Brasi sleeps, and where lies the head of Khartoum.
(This series will continue with #2 on my list – Coming soon!)