The Best Picture Winners: The Godfather (1972)

| December 6, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

It is nearly impossible for me to criticize anything regarding The Godfather.  That’s ironic given that criticism is right there in my job title.  But when it comes to giving this film any kind of critical analysis, I can only be positive.  Not only is it the only Best Picture winner of the 1970s that I agree with, but it remains my all-time favorite American film.  Maybe its my favorite film period.

The Godfather was a game-changer, rotating perspective on one of the oldest and most reliable genres that the medium had yet produced, the gangster picture.  Instead of cops chasing criminals, the story – based on an over-stuffed pop novel by Mario Puzo – takes us inside the closed world of the mob, a world with its own set of rules, its own laws, its own legions – families who operate like nations.  They make deals, they make treaties, and they go to war with one another.  The only true crime inside this sealed society is disloyalty, and the wages of sin is death.

The structure of The Godfather is, by now, movie folklore.  Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo put their collective heads together and came up with a narrative structure that should illicit a text book all its own.  They bypass extraneous introductions by collecting all of the major players into a single scene – a wedding in which everyone is introduced so that the rest of the story flows without pausing for orientation.  They alter the structure of the characters by erasing the lines between the moral and immoral.  The only major players here are mobsters, and our heroes The Corleones are people who are killers, but we admire their familial bond so much that we are with them no matter what horrifying deed they commit.

The glue to that familial bond is the family patriarch Don Vito (Marlon Brando, of course), a gangster by trade, but an admirable man who rules with a level head, and an heir of dire caution that the upcoming generation seems to completely ignore.  He’s a largely passive figure, an old lion whose only outburst of anger in the entire film is when his Godson bows to emotion rather than logic.  The Don’s dealings with this three sons bear echoes of King Lear.  Where to leave the family business?  Hotheaded Sonny?  Weak-kneed Fredo?  Or Michael, whose calculating patience and Machiavellian strategy for dealing with his enemies makes his rise to the top almost inevitable.

Opting out of the family business, Michael is never-the-less drawn back in by destiny, the inevitable whims of circumstance and the inherent elements of his own nature.  He is the perfect symbol of what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus meant when he wrote that “A man’s character is his fate.”  The world that Michael is taking charge of is no longer that rational United Nations that his father oversaw.  This world is more dangerous, less rational, and more strident.  And the great tragedy is that those changing times will mean a deadening in Michael’s very soul.

The Godfather is a great modern tragedy.  The stuff of great Italian opera.  And a modern epic that I don’t think has been equaled.  It is the most patient film I’ve ever seen in terms of its details, its characters, and the passage of time.  Its three hour running time moves quickly because we are so invested in the individual relationships, the course of time and the dramatic course of destiny.  What has been lost when the movie reaches its conclusion?  What is to come of this sealed world when the old Godfather dies. The future of this world of organized crime is becoming less crafty, more hot tempered, more reactionary and less compelled to weigh their options. Listen carefully, in the film to the score which comes in under the drama, Nino Rota’s music is funerary in its tone, a perfect evocation of a dying age.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.