I have been surprised by many films. Surprised by how good, bad, or indifferent they are. I’ve sat through some utter dross, and some utter gems. But I have never been so surprised to fall in love with a film as much as I fell in love with The Godfather.
That’s not to say I don’t admire Francis Ford Coppola, or the gangster genre. It’s just the baggage that follows a film around. Being called the ‘greatest film of all time’ can do many things for a film, it can create a legacy, make it a film enjoyed by generations to come, but it can also make it a target.
Every critic has a film they consider the best, and I imagine every critic has a film that others consider the best, but they don’t rate so much. For me that film is Citizen Kane, and it taught me to be wary of anything labelled the ‘greatest’ because if it is anything other than perfect, it can feel like a disappointment.
But, for all those that fall short, there are inevitably going to be films that surpass expectations, and The Godfather is that, in so many ways.
Trouble is brewing within the organised crime world. Heads of families are at war with each other and people are getting gunned down in the street, and at the top of it all is Vito Corleone, the Godfather. But when an attempt is made on his life, the family’s life is turned upside down.
In the last review, I said that Schindler’s List is ‘as close to perfect’ as you can get, well, I was wrong. The Godfather IS cinematic perfection.
Everything about it, from its direction, to its set design is perfectly considered and executed, it creates a tone of an important, once-in-a-lifetime film. There are many films that make illusions to being epic stories, well The Godfather feels epic without even trying to.
Each twist and turn in the story is considered, and perfectly placed, it has peaks and troughs, it goes from a sedate wedding scene to a bloodbath at a toll booth. For every moment of perfectly shot gunfight, there is a quieter moment, filled with story and character development, no character is filler, they all have a purpose.
The direction is astounding in its scope, taking us from the bustling streets of New York to the sprawling rustic landscape of the Sicilian countryside, its changes in scene representing stages within Michael’s arc, while Vito’s arc is mapped out in New York.
The most intriguing arc of this film, and the series as a whole, is that of Michael Corleone, going from a World War II veteran, uninterested in the life of organised crime his father and brothers find themselves in, into a ruthless crime boss, who orders the deaths of his enemies in cold blood.
This is portrayed smartly by Al Pacino, who completely owns the role of Michael, whose character will go through big changes in both this film and in Part II, but along each step of the way, he is believable. He does not join the mob because of blind loyalty, he is forced to due to his brother murder, he only starts to change when he claims his first kill and becomes a different man.
The film really is a showcase for some of the best performances in Hollywood history, not only Al Pacino, but Marlon Brando, who gives, in my opinion, the best acting performance in film history as Vito. You get the feeling that Vito is ruthless, but this is balanced by moments such as the iconic ‘they slaughtered my boy’ scene. He manages to be both violent and emotional within the same film, and it doesn’t feel forced or disjointed, his emotion is seen when his family is threatened, and then everything after is the violence.
The cast as a whole are phenomenal, James Caan is fantastic as Sonny, Talia Shire is great as Connie and Robert Duvall is understated, yet notable in his role as adopted Corleone, Tom.
All of this is helmed with such artistic direction, that more than once it completely took my breath away. The attempted assassination of Vito and the Christening scene spring to mind, both of which could make good cases as the best sequences in film history, but it is not just artistic angles and framing that make these scenes, it’s the pacing and timing in the script, they’re big events of the narrative timeline, that spans two films, both of which clock in at more than three hours, creating enough memorable scenes to see us through the mammoth run-time is no mean feat.
I don’t like to make tall claims or sweeping statements. I don’t think I am qualified to name a film as the best; no-one really is. But I can say with confidence that The Godfather is the greatest film I have ever seen. No film has ever surpassed its reputation quite like it, and I really cannot think of adequate amounts of praise; if you’re a film fan, and you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to set aside time to experience it. I just wish I could experience it for the first time all over again.