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THE GODFATHER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Length:  175 Minutes
Release Date:  October 9, 2001

"I believe in America..."

Film ****

The Godfather is a true American epic of filmmaking, filled with unforgettable characters, a story that unfolds with undeniable breadth and darkness, and a visual style that would practically define a decade's cinema.  It bridged the gap between the Mafioso movies of old with the likes of James Cagney into the modern world of pictures like GoodFellas by bringing us deeper and closer to an American crime family than had ever really been depicted on the screen before.

A lot of credit should go to author Mario Puzo, whose best-selling novel gave the Corleones to American culture, but director Francis Ford Coppola turned a brilliant story into a movie of mythical proportions.  His fluid visuals, tight editing, and understanding of his characters made the motion picture a landmark.

It is a film about love, family, honor, betrayal, and more, but for my money, the central theme was always the sins of the father.  In a picture filled with pivotal moments, none is as enthralling nor devastating as watching Michael Corleone's (Pacino) eyes near the end, as he accepts the duties of godfather to his sister's child...his lips repeat vows of renouncing evil, while masterful editing shows us at the same time the acts of violence being carried out at that very moment by his order.  Between the cutting and Pacino's performance, I've often sworn you could look into Michael's eyes and see his soul leaving him at that very moment.

Michael was the son who wasn't supposed to follow in the family business.  His father, Vito (Brando) knew it, as did his real brother Sonny (Caan) and adopted brother Tom Hagen (Duvall).  Michael fought in World War II and was a decorated soldier.  He was beloved by his father, who purposely tried to keep Michael out of his affairs and clean.

But like the saying goes...the sins of the father visit the heads of the son.  When Vito is brutally gunned down in a dispute over drugs, Michael is the only one "clean" enough to settle the family business and eradicate the men who committed the deed.  His meeting in the restaurant with the men is just another one of many brilliant set pieces that has become synonymous with the film itself.  From that moment on, violence becomes a real and very integral part of Michael's life...he fears it, then he accepts it, until at last, he wields it.

The dispute is over the introduction of narcotics dealings into the Mafia.  For Don Vito, and indeed for all the Corleones, a turning point is being reached.  Vito, despite his family position, has a moral code...he prefers to stick to gambling and liquor.  Drugs, he philosophizes, will be the downfall of the families. 

He was right, but it wasn't the advice other Dons wanted to hear, not when so much money was available to be made.  By the end of the picture, the handing of the torch from the old Don Vito to the new Don Michael is more than a family transition...it is the closing of one chapter in American crime history and opening a new one.

This film is electrifying from beginning to end...every frame fascinates in spite of all we know about organized crime.  In Coppola's eyes, we very rarely are looking at a criminal organization.  We are looking at a family.  There's a strange mix in how titillating the power seems, especially in the famed opening wedding sequence where men beg for favors of Vito in his shadowy office (the obvious Frank Sinatra clone especially), and the paranoia that goes with it.  These are people who have to look over their shoulders every day of their life and sleep with one eye open.  The film's surprising sequences of violence startle, but they prove a point:  in this kind of life, you never know when it's coming.  Or where it might be coming from.  It's a seductive world, from a cinematic point of view...it may not be the kind of life we'd really want to live, but we gladly give ourselves over to it for a few hours with the knowledge that we can walk away safely at the end.

Marlon Brando's performance has become the stuff of legends over the years, and quite possibly the most parodied one as well.  But there's something to be said when an actor is so viable in a role that even countless imitations don't derail the potency of the original.  His Oscar, though refused, was certainly well deserved.  But he was backed by an incredible supporting cast, all young, edgy and enthusiastic:  Caan as the bad-tempered Sonny, Duvall as the calm, smart Tom, and especially Pacino, whose Michael undergoes the most complete, startling and unforgettable transition over the course of the movie's three hours.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is absolutely integral to the picture:  his choice of tones and use of shadow and light immediately instill the film with a feeling of nostalgia.  It is essential in making us think fondly of the characters despite their deeds...there is a sense of time-gone-by that most period films don't really achieve; a sense that what we're witnessing on screen could very well be our own memories.

All of these elements combined helped Francis Ford Coppola cultivate the gangster film that would forever change the way mainstream culture perceived the Mafia.  The Godfather is dynamite entertainment from beginning to end...a classic study of love, fear, loyalty, betrayal and crime...all in the family. 

Video ***1/2

Paramount has done a most impressive job with what has to be one of the most difficult series of films to create transfers for.  One must bear in mind when watching the distinctive look that Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola strove for...it's somewhat unnatural, often with warmer hues like yellows dominating scenes, lots of shadow, purposefully masked images (faces and such), creating a sense of timelessness, isolation and nostalgia.  Sometimes what you see looks soft and with slightly murky detail...it's meant to be that way.  The look of the film serves the storyline, and this anamorphic transfer serves the look, with only a few minor complaints:  occasionally, some aging artifacts show up in the form of specks and spots on the print (very light, but noticeable), and some undue grain is apparent from time to time as a result of the high contrast...but only in one or two quickly passing scenes.  Overall, this is an impressive offering on what must be considered a difficult assignment.

Audio ***  

The 5.1 remix is generally very good, and makes use of both front and back stages for extra ambience and to open up the terrific score by Nina Rota.  Dialogue uses the center channel, which comes across with clarity, but occasional thinness compared to the fullness of the open stages.  The .1 channel is called upon only a couple of times for effect, but is generally not missed.

Features (see The Godfather DVD Collection)

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