5 Dec 2009

The Godfather: An in depth review

In the second episode of the third season of The Sopranos, Proshai, Livushka, Tony, much to his chagrin, ends up discussing film history with Noah Tannenbaum, an African-American classmate of his daughter at Columbia University. The specific focus of their discussion is James Cagney in The Public Enemy, and the origins of the gangster melodrama, and though Noah gives “the nod to William Wellman”,
in the patronising and self-aggrandising way that anyone taking a film course entitled “Hypercapitalist Self-Advancement In The Era Of The Studio System” is likely to do, he does make a valid point. Coming one year before Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation hit theatres, and a year after Little Caesar, The Public Enemy is arguably the film most responsible for the popular acceptance of the gangster film.

Classic and iconic as these three films are, they were all little more than simple morality plays, though supremely executed ones at th
at. A power-mad, immature and violent protagonist will experience a rise to prominence, followed by a rapid downfall that will result in their death in the final scenes of the film. Audiences flocked to see these films, intrigued as they were by the off screen events of Prohibition and the real-life gangsters like Al Capone who were constantly in the news. It was imperative then that these films not glorify the lifestyles of their characters, and that they ultimately meet justice for the crimes they have committed, strict as the Hays Production code was on filmmakers. Hence the final act of nearly all these movies comes with a sense of false piety that is rarely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. However, Hollywood in 1972 and 1932 were very different places, and so when Paramount Pictures entrusted a Master Of Fine Arts graduate from UCLA Film School to adapt one of the decades most popular novels, I doubt even in their wildest dreams they could have predicted just how successful, both critically and commercially, The Godfather would be.

Crazy as it may sounds now (for a modern equivalent, imagine that after
having made Happiness and Storytelling Todd Solondz was given The Da Vinci Code, or Harry Potter to direct) in their desire to make the film as authentic as possible by having an Italian director, Paramount really did entrust their biggest project of the year to a 31 year old without a single hit to his name. And, to his immense credit, Coppola refused to do it. Initially. Proud of his ancestry (his grandparents were Italian immigrants), he had no desire to make a movie which he felt would further tarnish the reputation of all Italians, and that would further the stereo-type that anyone whose surname ended in a vowel was mobbed-up. No disrespect to Mario Puzo, but his book differs greatly to the masterpiece that was made for the screen. Would we really love The Godfather as much as we do if they’d included the scene where Sonny’s girlfriend Lucy has vaginal reconstructive surgery?
Or how about the subplot concerning Jack Woltz, the horse-owning studio head and his rampant paedophilia? I doubt it. The Godfather is a lurid, violent, but thoroughly entertaining novel. It is a gripping page-turner, but little more, and it certainly contains none of the operatic grandeur that Coppola brought to the film. How did it change so dramatically? How did the movie become such a stunning treatise on the American Dream? For me, the answer lies in two minor but crucial characters. Bonasera the undertaker, and Enzo the baker. Nobody, even the patriarch of the Corleone family himself, symbolizes the narrowness, the isolation, and the stifling sense of community that these characters exist within. If you’re not Italian, you’re a potential target. And if you are Italian, you’re just one midnight phone-call away from being told you “owe the Don a service”. This is little Italy indeed.

“I believe in America.” It is with these simple words, uttered by Bonasera as he pleads with Vito Corleone for justice for his battered daughter, that the whole epic saga begins, but as he continues we quickly realise that this is hardly a declaration of love for the land of the free. “America has made me my fortune.” Is there a more cynical announcement of faith imaginable than that? As Vito points out, Bonasera found paradise in America, and until tragedy struck and his daughter was so ruthlessly assaulted he had no need for a man like The Godfather. He had no desire for his friendship, and was afraid to be in his debt. Now though, in his hour of need, he finds himself standing in the office of one of the most powerful men in New York, tearful and trembling. Finally, after Bonasera has debased himself sufficiently (“Be my friend…Godfather?”) does Vito agree to help him, but even though the gesture is presented in the most noble of terms, the contract that Bonasera has signed with his soul on this day is
extremely clear. The Godfather doesn’t want his money. He wants him. Bonasera performs an admirable skill that has provided him with a very lucrative business. It may not be at the forefront of Vito Corleone’s mind on the joyous occasion of his daughters wedding, but as Bonasera meekly departs his office he knows one thing clearly; worse-case scenario is that he’ll never have to pay for another funeral again

Behind Bonasera in the queue for an audience with the Godfather is Nazorine, a local baker. His business has been employing a young Italian named Enzo for the last six months, but now that the Second World War is over (The first film is set in 1945, a fairly crucial moment in the evolution of America) the government plans to repatriate him back to Italy. Nazorine wishes him to stay and continue working for him, and to marry his daughter, a wish Don Corleone is all too happy too grant. Nazorine is ecstatic, and leaves the room waxing lyrical about the beautiful cake he has provided for the wedding. I wonder how much that cost? In fact, I wonder if anything at the wedding was actually paid for, or if it was all offered up as a tribute to Vito. Even the entertainment, Hollywood superstar (and, if the rumours are to be true, Frank Sinatra surrogate) Johnny Fontaine, is a close friend of the family. Everybody here is happy to have a friend like the Godfather, and in these first few joyous scenes (Parts One and Two both start with family events, but while Connie’s wedding in One is a cheerful and carefree occasion, the first communion of Anthony that begins Two is a drunken, hostile and bitter affair) everything about this system of bartering and tributes seems perfectly reasonable. It is only later, when Bonasera and young Enzo himself are called upon by the Corleone family, do we see the psychic price of a deal with the Don.

Enzo is called upon first, and although inadvertently, there can be no doubting the effect his encounter has on him. After a terse dinner with his girlfriend Kay (with the exception of the idiotic Fredo she must be the most tragic character in the whole series) Michael visits his father in the hospital, finding him all alone. The police and guards who were protecting him are all gone, paid off by the Turk Sollozzo. As Michael attempts to move his Dad to the safety of another room, Enzo arrives (“I Am Enzo! The Baker!”) with flowers for this wonderful man who bribed whichever judges or officials were necessary to ensure that Enzo could stay in America. As Michael explains the gravity of the situation to him, that in all likelihood men are on their way to murder Vito, Enzo says he will stay to help. And so the two men stand on the hospital steps, collars inconspicuously turned up, and wait to see who arrives. A car slowly pulls up, and lingers by the front entrance. Some shady looking men inside it confer with one another. Michael slowly puts his hand inside his coat pocket, as if he were about to remove a gun. The car drives off. A potentially bloody conflict has been avoided with no one being hurt. Except poor Enzo. As Michael congratulates him on his performance and thanks him for what he has done, his angst is clear for all to see. So shaken is he by the events that he is unable to even light a cigarette. He will go home that night to Nazorine’s daughter, after maybe stopping at a bar first though, and will probably never tell his wife how close he was to being murdered in cold blood. We never hear from Enzo again, I hope he went on to live a long and happy life but I can guarantee that up until his death he never forgot that night. This is the Faustian pact that all friends of the family must make. Behind every kissed ring, every promise, and every favour, is a car full of guys ready to shoot at a moments notice. This reality is brought home to Bonasera in an even more shocking manner, as he is tasked with restoring the slain Sonny to a condition that his mother could acceptably see him in. To someone so timid and hesitant, even one who deals with death every day of his life, the sight of a young man who has been murdered in such a vicious manner must be truly horrifying. The trepidation on his face as prepares for his service (The perfectly framed descending elevator camera angle that introduces his fearful face as he enters the morgue, recreated exactly in The Sopranos when Tony’s mother dies, sets the scene perfectly) is evident, and though we never see him attempt to reconstruct what is left of Sonny, or even the service itself so we never know if he succeeded or not, at some point during his arduous and gruelling work it must have crossed his mind that whether the “justice” he sought for his daughter all those months ago was really worth it. This is Don Corleone’s market economy though, and he makes the rules. In a capitalist system every person owns his or her own labour and can sell it to his or her employer freely. In Coppola’s vision of America though, your employers end up owning you.

So if America is a cruel and callous place where people are defined only by their own interests (is there a more perfect image from the first film than the murder of Paulie, framed as it is with the Statue Of Liberty clearly visible in the background?) what are we to make of the characters that occupy her? Although Coppola says he strove not to honour these men for fear of discrediting his Italian heritage, I still believe he has given them a grandeur and mysticism that is totally opposed to their real-life counterparts. For all his ruthless demands, Vito truly is a man of the people. He refuses to lead the family into the selling of narcotics, believing it to be dangerous and evil. He constantly espouses his theories on family values and what it means to be a man. For all the sins committed by him and his family you still end up loving them, and mourn each of them as they pass away. Coppola’s vision, of a king with three sons (one who had his anger, Sonny, one who had his heart, Fredo, and one who had his brains, Michael) is truly Shakespearean, and it is this that represents the best, and worst, of The Godfather. He may claim to have strived for realism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Social commentary it may be, but that doesn’t stop his film from being wholly unrealistic, particularly when compared to Scorsese’s hyper, documentary-like Goodfellas. The Godfather, and its first sequel in particular, remains one of the greatest films of all time, but it is purely fantasy. When we watch The Godfather, and the character of Vito Corleone in particular, we see who we want to be. When we watch Goodfellas, and Henry Hill, we are reminded of who we are.

Matthew Kleebauer

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