With all due respect to this 1972 classic, Vizzini was right: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
In a post-war America, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the head of a powerful mafia family but better known to friends and associates as “Godfather.” His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) is a decorated World War II Marine war hero who has managed to stay out of the family business. After rivals gun down Vito but fail to kill him, Michael’s older brother Sonny (James Caan) tries to hold the family business together but doesn’t have the temperament of his father. Michael finds himself having to step up to protect the father he loves but in the process takes his first step into the seductively violent and powerful world his father never wanted for him.
Full disclosure: before now, I had never once sat down to watch The Godfather in its entirety. It was just one of those films that repeatedly escaped my viewing although I made no specific attempt to avoid it. Now with a boxed set of all three films in a fresh digital transfer restoration, the first film looks pristine and sounds incredible; it could have been made yesterday. As a period piece set decades before the year it was actually made, it is filmed and edited beautifully, making almost three hours seem very short. Even knowing what to expect after years of spoofs and outright theft from this film in no way diminished the viewing experience, and that speaks volumes as to why it is widely regarded an American classic.
Even as their story lures you in to relate to these characters, there really aren’t any “good” guys to be found, just the innocents in the crossfire as a source of more guilt for our characters to carry. As the focus of the story, Al Pacino’s Michael has the widest character arc, starting off looking like Matthew Broderick fresh from Biloxi Blues before morphing into someone who would go on to play Scarface; it’s a believable change from beginning to end. Seeing the look of shock on his face after the restaurant scene to the cold calculator who lies to his godson’s father is the very definition of transition, and Pacino made it look easy.
As one of the most lampooned performances in cinematic history, Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone is so naturally dead on that it’s hard not to poke fun at it, but you wouldn’t do it to his face. The performance is so nuanced with quirks both visual and audible that one might assume this isn’t an act; seriously, he’s just really like that, right? By the time he falls in the garden playing with his grandson, it feels like losing your favorite grandpa, especially with what Michael does immediately afterward.
From New York to Los Angeles to Sicily, The Godfather tells the story from the criminal’s point of view as an honorable family is forced to lower itself to the standards of usurpers who know no other way. One of the most telling moments is Michael explaining to his girl what he’s done for his father’s safety and makes a reference to governments and presidents. When she innocently comments that presidents and governments don’t assassinate people in their way, he answers, “You’re not that naive, are you?” Instead of the high-life living, palace dwelling untouchables of yesteryear, this is the stressful, back room dealing, take-out eating, unglamorous picture of a mob family that would later inspire imitators like HBO’s “The Sopranos” (and we should all be so lucky that it did.)
(a four skull recommendation out of four)