The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration

Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic is one of those few films that can be accurately classified as an epic of elevated standards. Like Citizen Kane, or Casablanca, the legacy of The Godfather is so powerful that a cinematic rookie may feel that watching it is more a chore or a requirement than a fun time at the movies. Thus rears the dreaded head of expectation, and thus ruins many a neophyte’s introduction to the classics of the cinema. It’s amazing how hard we find it to just sit down and enjoy a canonized film. It can be done, though. The Godfather was certainly not a classic in 1972; it was, quite simply, a movie that took the industry by storm, garnering nearly unprecedented public, critical, and official support. And in 1972, viewers did not have to contend with worries about canonization or iconic status or expectation, because the general expectation was for an entertaining pulp flick based on an entertaining pulp novel by Mario Puzo, and not necessarily for a timeless classic. The Godfather worked, not because it was meticulously planned as a Film for the Ages, but because it told an interesting story about interesting people living in an interesting world, and because it presented all the nuances of that world without sacrificing much in the way of entertainment value.

In short, The Godfather hasn’t become a classic because some creepy old men decided they wished it to be so; it’s a classic because, believe it or not, the vast majority of people saw it and loved it. And the reason they did is because The Godfather has three important elements: great story, great characters, and great acting. Coppola, by equal amounts of pleading, arguing, and plain dumb luck, assembled a cast that, today, would be considered a virtually impossible collection of talent. But again, many of these actors had not yet earned revered status back in 1972: Al Pacino was relatively unknown, as was Robert Duvall, and James Caan. The only proven “star” here was Marlon Brando, playing Don Vito, head of the Corleone family, and Coppola pulled off a very clever trick with him— he brought Brando out to dominate the early scenes with his puffed-cheek, cat-stroking, hoarsely-mumbling interpretation that somehow managed to stay just this side of ridiculous (few were as good at walking the tightrope as Brando), and then promptly had the Don shot and laid up by rival gangsters, leaving the rest of the film to be carried chiefly by Pacino, Caan, and Duvall (which they do— all three performances are excellent).

This is important, because if The Godfather is about anything, it is primarily about family. Coppola’s most impressive feat here is in making us simultaneously aware of Michael’s inevitable future and completely floored by his transformation. It’s alluded to from the start: Don Vito consistently appears most interested in Michael out of all his children, and Michael himself plans the Corleone family’s most successful hit (the restaurant murder, which, like most scenes in The Godfather, has passed into the cultural lexicon). Sonny wants control, and tries most forcefully to take it, but the thing we all knew would happen and kind of hoped wouldn’t happen, does: Sonny’s temper leads him directly into a trap, and he goes down in a barrage of gunfire. Michael attempts to start a new life with Apollonia, a traditional Sicilian beauty he meets while hiding overseas, and Kay tries to make contact with him, pull him back to her world, but the gears are turning too quickly. By the time Don Vito collapses in his garden, the torch has already been passed: Michael is the Don; he has assumed complete control, gotten rid of his enemies, and begun to make the bulk of his decisions for reasons of business over passion (note how effortlessly he lies to Kay’s face in the final scene— which leads directly to the brilliantly morbid closing shot).

Both boxed sets for The Godfather come with exclusive bonus discs, and all of the extras from the old set are transferred over here. This includes the full-length audio commentaries with Francis Ford Coppola on all three main discs. These are excellent, informative commentaries. With movies of this size, Coppola has much to talk about, including the perils of trying to keep the first film afloat, recreating the success for the sequel, and even the negative reactions the third installment garnered. They are great tracks, opening up the Corleone world in terms of fact (the production) and fiction (the story) for the franchise’s fans.

The Godfather films, without a doubt, are daunting timeless films to reiterate, about… dare I say it… life itself. They are epic, they are complicated, and they boast a huge cast. But the keys to the enduring success are, as always, the characters and more importantly the story. They make the films accessible; by each film’s ending, they have been familiarized, lived-in, and transformed. The Godfather films need not be epics, because The Godfather saga is intensely personal. It engulfs us in the lives of a lot of despicable people, but it fails to repulse us, chiefly because it never lets us forget that they are people. The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration– what can I say? Again… it’s The Godfather. These movies are monumental examples in terms of filmmakers everywhere. Whenever I think about what movies belong in every filmmaker’s collection, The Godfather will always make the list, and The Coppola Restoration Gift Set is finally the DVD set-up to match the films’ reputations.

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~ by upbeatmag on November 19, 2008.

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