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The Godfather
1972 - R - Mins.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Albert S. Ruddy
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire
Review by: John Ulmer
   
"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
- Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather

Quite ironically, "The Godfather" is simply an offer you can't refuse. It is the pinnacle of gangster films - many great films followed in its footsteps ("Once Upon a Time in America," "Goodfellas"), but a large number of others failed miserably ("The Godson"). I honestly believe that without certain films, movies would simply not be what they are today. Among that category lies "The Godfather," the Mafia Don of these flicks.

The key to "The Godfather" is that it exists in a closed world. These are ruthless beings surrounding us - crime lords, murderers, barbaric thugs - yet we feel for them. Why? Because we are never entirely shown the outside world's perception upon these crime figures. The screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola is choice: It never flashes to the police station and a cop's view of the gangsters - as Roger Ebert pointed out, the most it ever shows is a corrupt cop's point of view on the crime world. You know you have been immersed in an epic film by great storytellers when you feel pain for ruthless characters and truly think nothing of it.

And "The Godfather" is all about growing up, coming to terms with one's heritage and destiny. It is also about loyalty - loyalty to friends, family, and yourself. There's an important message in this film. Sure, it's about gangsters, but the underlying themes stay true to reality.

The film opens moody and then switches course. We are at a wedding. It is a wedding between a Mafia Don's daughter and a Sicilian. That Mafia Don is Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who sits perched like a king behind a desk in his private office, backlit as if he were the primary authoritarian over every existing being.

On the day of his daughter's wedding, a request is made. A bitter man cries out for help to Don Corleone. His daughter has been raped and he wants justice. "I went to the police, like a good American," the man says, ashamed. The next moment is mindblowing - Don Corleone feels disrespected because the man did not come to him first. What is so amazing about this, and what really alters your view or perception of the Mafia, is that we realize that something as small as a belated request can cause outrage among a mobster. It is the first time the film drops hints at the audience; it's there, and it's telling us that we are in a new culture now. As it is customary for dinner guests to burp in some countries after a meal, we realize that the Mafia is, in fact, an entirely different world, with different set rules and customs, and when this is dropped upon us it hits like a brick, leaving us stunned.

The film centers around one man, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). His character is shown more careful observation in the second chapter of the series, but ironically the title of this film really is all about him. One would think that "The Godfather" is referring to Brando's character, but it is all about Michael, it always has been. He is the one who, after his father is shot, must take over the family "business." He is the one who must come to terms with himself and his heritage. He is the one who enters that bathroom, holds the gun, and steps past a crossroad in his life where there is no turning back. He is the Godfather.

After Michael kills the corrupt cop who essentially murdered his father and brother, he flees to Sicily, where he meets and later marries a pretty young Sicilian girl. But it isn't long before he is hunted down - and in an effort to assassinate Michael, his lovely bride is instead murdered.

Michael flees back to his home. He has no trust in anyone - including his family friend, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who he leaves in the dark about his decision to murder the heads of other crime families.

Eventually Michael re-marries to his original girlfriend (Diane Keaton), who suspects something is wrong but never quite understands what. In the later chapters she divorces Michael, but we always sense an appreciation of their love. They are in love, but Michael's background comes into conflict.

The end unravels like a candy wrapper being twisted. It is, of course, the famous "Baptism Scene," where we are shown the heads of crime families being simultaneously murdered in various locations. We are shown this with intercuts of a baptism ceremony for Michael's godchild. Something special happens here. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, Michael becomes a godfather in this scene in more than one way.

The performances in "The Godfather" are magnificently rich, as is Gordon Willis' cinematography, which captures a real Italian mood. We know all about Marlon Brando's character - he is mocked in "The Godson" to "Mickey Blue Eyes" to commercials for cat food (I can only assume). The puffy cheeks, the stirring vocals (his character took a bullet to the throat in his early days), and so on and so forth.

This is the kind of stuff that film historians will look back upon three hundred years from now and comment on. Things like these will never go away. They are part of our culture now. Just as Don Vito Corleone was instinctively disrespected with a belated request, certain films will just always be famous. It's just our culture.

Quick, name ten films that completely altered the course of film history. I've got some: "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane," "Gone with the Wind," "The Third Man," "Psycho," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Star Wars," "JAWS," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and, of course, "The Godfather." All these films completely revolutized the film industry. And seeing a film like "The Godfather," beholding its majesty and splendor and watching it all unfold on the screen in such elegance . . . it's just no wonder that it is one of the most beloved of all films.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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