One of the week’s buzziest releases is a re-run of a film from 50 years ago. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather hit the screens on March 14, 1972, and immediately established itself as an exemplar of the gangster movie genre. A restored version of The Godfather will be released on a limited number of screens on February 25.
Adapted by Coppola from the Mario Puzo bestseller of the same name, The Godfather traces the evolution of the Corleone clan, which is led by Marlon Brando’s patriarch Vito. The movie unfolds at the intersection of the Mafia’s operations in New York City, Catholic values of family and community and prevailing social and political undercurrents.
Attempts to challenge Corleone’s supremacy take place alongside weddings, baptisms and family gatherings. A son who regards himself as the true heir pays for his rashness. Another, who Vito Corleone dreams will be an American senator one day, descends into the muck and is transformed in the process.
The film set in a specific time and place – America in the 1940s and 1950s – has spawned countless tributaries and imitators around the globe. For better or worse, any movie that examines inter-generational tensions and the unlawful quest for lucre and social influence within the framework of the family is compared to The Godfather.
Some films, such as Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, borrowed ways to stage scenes from The Godfather and its sequel. Others, such as Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, took visual cues and major plot points from Coppola.
The Godfather has many entry points for viewers of all persuasions. Mafia maniacs have plenty to chew on, from the codes of loyalty and tactical silence that supposedly govern this criminal enterprise to their musical tastes and culinary habits. Lovers of great performances can savour Brando’s hauteur and Al Pacino’s enigmatic broodiness, which anticipates his dark turn in the sequel.
Admirers of technical virtuosity are still marvelling at cinematographer Gordon Willis’s lustrous palette of black and dull gold and Coppola’s dexterous intercutting between scenes of carnage and purity. Nino Rota’s score is instantly recognisable.
Fans of modern gangster cinema might find The Godfather wanting in terms of its valoursation of the Mafia and its sentimental portrayal of mobsters. Coppola’s sequel squarely addresses these concerns. Moving between the origin story of Vito Corleone and his son Michael’s struggle to expand the Corleone legacy, The Godfather Part II (1974) is a cautionary tale of outward corruption seeping into the woodwork of the soul and staining it in horrible ways.
The concluding part of the series that should never have been a trilogy emerged in 1990. Apart from its many problems, The Godfather Part III struggled to reach the bar set by Coppola himself in the previous two films.
The Godfather marked the beginning of a fabulous run for Coppola that included The Conversation, The Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and The Cotton Club. Coppola’s pre-eminent reputation in Hollywood and beyond rests on the movies he made between 1972 and the mid-1980s.
His later major works included Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), a dazzling take on the vampire legend, and The Rainmaker (1997), based on the John Grisham novel of the same name. But for Coppola fans, this protean stylist had said all there was to say about his approach to cinema in the 1970s itself.
Coppola’s peers included Martin Scorsese, who similarly reinvented the crime drama and brought to it an immediacy and a technical excellence that still feels raw and fresh. Between Mean Streets (1973) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) via Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese’s scrappy and relatable crime dramas have arguably survived the passage of time better than Coppola’s classicism.
In Italy, filmmakers were examining the Mafia with less muddled morality and a more clear-eyed understanding of the gradual erosion of public institutions. A direct line connects Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Guiliano (1962), a subjective biopic of a Sicilian brigand with ties to both the Mafia and revolutionaries, Hands Over the City (1963), about corruption in urban development projects in Naples, and Illustrious Corpses (1976), about what Italians call the “Years of Lead” – the assassination of judges and bureaucrats between the 1960s and the 1980s.
More recent Italian films such as Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor (2019), which is available on MUBI, provide a decidedly unromantic view of the Mafia. The Traitor blows open the culture of “Omerta” – the refusal to inform on Mafia activities out of a sense of loyalty and pride.
Yet, The Godfather remains deeply embedded in popular culture, both as one of the masterpieces you have probably not watched yet and the movie that you have seen only 75 times. The restored version provides a rare opportunity to watch Coppola’s achievements on the big screen for which they were meant.
The movie cast a massive shadow over subsequent crime dramas that were completely different in treatment. In 1997, a quarter of a century after The Godfather, British director Mike Newell made one of the finest American Mafia movies of all time.
Donnie Brasco stars Al Pacino as bottom-rung Mafiosi Lefty and Johnny Depp as an undercover policeman whose loyalties are torn between his job and Lefty’s humanism. As a character study as well as a depiction of gangsters low down in the pecking order, Donnie Brasco is closer to Scorsese than Coppola.
And yet: “Contrary to movie myth, the Mafia is not made up of dignified men in tuxedos mumbling about honor,” began a review of Donnie Brasco for the San Francisco Chronicle. Whether as cultural artefact or meme, as a benchmark or a point of opposition, The Godfather lives on and is likely to endure into eternity.