Last week I crossed two films off my List of Films I Often Lie About Not Having Seen.
Now, I don’t think I have ever actually had to lie about this fact; rather, whenever someone mentioned The Godfather trilogy, I’d nod my head in agreement and venerate Francis Ford Coppola’s films as best as I could. I never acknowledged or corrected someone who wrongly assumed that I had seen them. In rare cases, I’d admit to the oversight, and then endure a 30-second lambasting…Never. Again.
Fair warning: If you, too, have never seen the Godfather trilogy (Well, Parts I and II. I have yet to see Part III, and that task is for a day when I feel I can stand Sofia Coppola’s acting, which may not come for years), I caution you in reading this post as there will be minor spoilers. And I mean it. I somehow managed to stay in the dark and experienced the film’s thrilling twists and turns with their intended impact. I’d hate to deny you that same experience.
As with all great narratives—and The Godfather‘s is one of the greatest—the story is layered and can be interpreted from many different angles. What I found most compelling in my first viewing was Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) trajectory. The Godfather is, from the beginning, a story of Michael Corleone’s demise—his loss of innocence and the erosion of his moral character.
Watching Part I and II side by side offers a striking comparison of both Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Pacino) in the family role of “Don Corleone,” the highest member of a powerful Italian mob enterprise. Part I shows us Vito in that role, and later in Part II, we see Michael pick up where his father left off. Both possess the cold, ruthless disposition that presumably any mob boss would need, but Michael is not his father, and his actions in the second film fray the tailored edges of the Godfather image Vito created.
Mario Puzo, the author, and Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay together) carefully lay the groundwork for this transition long before it is executed on screen by Pacino. Perhaps Michael’s aggression comes from his military background, or because his outlook is narrowed by a privileged upbringing (unlike Vito’s gradual ascension to wealth and power after having immigrated to the United States an orphan from Italy). Though his impression at the beginning of the film is that of an attractive, angelic-like young man, Michael’s propensity for violence bubbles to the service when he volunteers to kill two enemies of the family involved in a heroin trafficking operation. He successfully carries out the operation, and at that moment, it really feels as though there was no turning back for him.
Many references are made to Vito’s wish that Michael would never travel down this path to become the Godfather. The eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) was the presumed heir, but his death in Part I changes everything, and Vito feels the loss of Michael’s innocence as he is called to the role (passing over his older brother Fredo, who is treated as simple-minded and incapable) as much as he feels the loss of his first born.
At times it is not clear if Michael truly loves his family, or if he loves them because the loyalty that ties them all together is all he has ever known. He is paranoid, and quick to act on a suspicion that someone might be against him, an affliction that ultimately leads him to order the death of his loving, yet dim, brother Fredo (John Cazale). Perhaps what is most chilling is that he brings his targets close, giving them the false hope that he has forgiven them, before he calls for their execution, as is the case for Fredo, and earlier in the film for his brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo). Under Michael’s regime, the Corleone operation feels much more destructive and unstable.
I’m eager to watch these films (and perhaps Part III, too) a second time to take in this complicated narrative from another angle; but in the meantime, I’m taking in Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone and filing it under one of the best on film. Michael’s transition to the role of the Godfather and the demise of his moral character transcends every expectation I had for the films.