Friday, 25 September 2009

[242] The Godfather (1972), Back in Cinemas

Released today is a reprint of The Godfather, from Park Circus, which will be showing at selected cinemas across the UK (more details here). Below is an essay-piece I wrote about seeing The Godfather on the big screen, which is also posing under the guise of a "review" on Screenjabber. It's more of a commentary piece. So here it is.

What is there left to say about The Godfather, one of the most storied films in cinema history, as it is released to the viewing public once more in a cleaned-up reprint?

The cinema is a place of dreams, of stories and art. Watching a motion picture in a darkened room, with surround sound and a gigantic image is a psychologically enveloping experience. You become one with the 24 flickering frames per second. Recreating that in the home environment is hard. It's getting closer nowadays, with 'home cinema' entertainment systems, television screens the size of barn doors and sound set-ups designed to blow you through the roof - but the living room is a place of life, not imagination.

Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film The Godfather is a landmark piece of world cinema. Like plenty of its peers in the pantheon of classics, its greatness has been overstated, and its distinctiveness has been copied, parodied, or simply digested by generations of subsequent filmmakers. It's easy to take for granted, and easy to dismiss. There is also little to say, as it is deemed to be Classic with a capital 'c', with, in mainstream discourse, little argument or discussion.

And so it came to be that I first saw The Godfather on DVD. And it was good; great, even. But, I detected flaws; I thought it's 175 minute runtime was slow, and saggy in the middle. The transition between the stories of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Al Pacino) seemed jagged, and hinged around an extended sequence in dusty rural Sicily, which seemed crucially different from the stylish, thrilling metropolis of New York. I felt a little cheated, but I accepted it: without nostalgia, pieces of culture - be it music, film, or otherwise - can often be less than their public reputation would have you believe.

But, as the lights went down in the screening room, I knew I was in for something different. As Nino Rota's ubiquitous - yet still powerful - main theme swells on a black background for a crucial handful of seconds, before the equally-ubiquitous font-and-logo appears on screen - white-on-black and striking - it is startlingly clear that The Godfather is a piece made from the ground up for iconic standing. From that moment, you're hooked, and, without the intrusion of washing machines, passing cars, or loud flatmates, you can fall headfirst into the world of The Godfather, and pay attention.

The opening wedding sequence is a stunning piece of introduction and exposition. The initial scene is (with great skill from cinematographer Gordon Willis) all slow camera movement, atmospheric light-and-shadow and an oblique over-the-shoulder perspective that nearly deifies Corleone, as he accepts tributes and petitions from men such as Bonasera the Undertaker (Salvatore Corsitto). Slowly, Coppola opens up the scene, taking in the other family members on the periphery, before further extrapolating out of the shuttered darkness of the Don's office, into the joyous family occasion occurring outside. The sequence manages to, with a light touch, bring in the film's myriad characters, their relationships, and the world of organised crime ('I believe in America'), as well as encapsulating the novelistic approach to themes - especially regarding the complex interplay between the Don's purported, staunched family values, and his life of crime, extortion and deceit.

This is just one of the subtle, stylistic masterstrokes in The Godfather, and there are plenty. It is an expansive, epic, widescreen film, of the kind that rewards attention; but, importantly, it is an engaging, entertaining film - sparring with its themes, following its characters and sitting through its sub-3 hour length is not difficult. Not on the big screen. Even those elements that seemed like flaws in previous viewings were given new dimension, thanks to the more orchestrated viewing context: the cross-cutting between the generations is, when laid out on a larger canvas, a complex oedipal drama, of compromised expectations, switching of familial roles, and overwhelming senses of duty. The Italian sequence - an intermezzo in what is otherwise an opera of the American dream - uses narrative in order to cook up some wonderfully symbolic character development, as Michael - the American GI and "War Hero" - reconnects with his Italian heritage, and learns the key family values of respect and dignity.

That he eventually becomes an outright liar, and a treacherous criminal leader with little time for decency and open-ness, is the tragedy of the film. As he closes the door on his wife, Kay (a beautiful, tender Diane Keaton), it is clear that his transition is complete, and that her role as the head of the family needs to be utterly separate from his role as the head of The Family. She will become like Mama Corleone (Morgana King), who, in the world of The Godfather, is little more than an extra.

The Godfather's qualities can be overstated, but they cannot be denied. It is a rich, nuanced, and well-rounded production; watching it on a cinema screen is a wonder, with its momentum and immensity proving totally engrossing. Not seen it before? Make sure you do.

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