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The Godfather / Der Pate

Director: Francis Ford Coppola (USA). Year of Release: 1972

It’s Connie Corleone’s wedding day, and various people are trying to arrange closed door meetings with her father, Don. A Sicilian father is expected to grant any favours on his daughter’s wedding day, and Vito Corleone has plenty of influence he can offer. First up is an undertaker wanting revenge on the 2 men who raped his daughter. He tried calling the police on them but the courts just let them off on a suspended sentence. Vito admonishes him for not contacting him first.

Over the course of the wedding banquet, we get to know most of the film’s major characters, most notably Vito’s children. We don’t learn much more about Connie, whose main job is to get married and produce mail heirs. But there’s Sonny, the hothead, and Michael, the favourite, just back from the Second World War. Vito insists that all family photographs are delayed until Michael arrives.

There’s Tom Hagen, who as you can guess from his name is not a blood relative, but was adopted into the family. He now works as the family’s lawyer, and is given more respect than Zeppo, er, Fredo, the runt of the litter. Fredo is regularly passed over in favour his adopted and younger brothers. It is a sign of Fredo’s status that while James Caan, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall all got Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for the roles of Sonny, Michael and Tom, John Cazale as Fredo did not.

We don’t need to go too deeply into the plot, do we? It’s the Godfather after all, given a cinema re-release for its 50th anniversary. It contains some of the most memorable lines in film history: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, and one of the most memorable scenes (the one with the horse’s head).

There are also scenes which have been stolen wholesale for other cultural products. Marlon Brando’s role as Don Corleone has been much parodied, not least by himself in The Freshman and Peter Sellers in one of the later Pink Panther films. And just looking at the scene in which Michael makes his first hit just makes you (well me) immediately think of the final scene in The Sopranos.

Yet for all that, I remembered very few of the actual scenes. Ok, I haven’t seen it in decades, since I misspent my teen-age in Bradford’s Playhouse cinema going to see anything that was (a) old and (b) supposed to be any good. I’m not sure I’ve seen the film since then, but it is so iconic that I’d expect to have remembered more of it than I actually did. This may be more about the state of my ageing memory than anything else, but it was a joy to see it almost as if it were for the first time.

So what’s it all about? Well, the two main themes are Business and Family. The film came out of the counter culture when the Vietnam war was starting to go very badly (or very well, depending your point of view) and the post-war Conservative norms of US-American society were falling apart. So, it has few qualms in saying that the mafia and big business are basically two sides of the same coin. The main figures regularly use business jargon when describing their operations.

And, like business – indeed like war – there is a crushing inevitability of how things fall apart not because anyone plans it, but because of a system which is unable to resolve its contradictions. The Corleones – and other mob leaders – are constantly trying to arrange ceasefires, because they know that no-one will benefit from protracted tit for tat vendettas. But the ceasefires are regularly broken, because there is always a small term gain for whoever fires the first shot.

Likewise, the mob is openly and unapologetically in bed with big business. They buy senators and the press. When a ceasefire is inevitably broken, we see the front page reports by sympathetic journalists who know that they will personally benefit from staying on the right side of the mob. The mafia is corrupt but it’s as American as apple pie (it’s interesting that in the very first scene, the undertaker appeals to Don Corleone “as an American”, although both were born in Sicily).

Nowhere is the institutional corruptibility clearer than in the figure of Michael. He attends his sister’s wedding with his WASP girlfriend, to whom he is apologetic about his family, saying that he’s not like them. But as he gets increasingly drawn into family responsibilities, he becomes indistinguishable from any other mafia type. Family is crucially important to most characters in The Godfather, but it is also something which helps destroy them.

At 3 hours, The Godfather does feel a bit long in parts, and you do notice how the pacing of major films has changed in the past 50 years. It also won’t score well on the Bechdel Test and the involvement of female parts is perfunctory. But it is also beautifully constructed and a masterclass on how to turn a trashy novel into a fantastic film.

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