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FILM COMMENT

A Revival You Can't Refuse

Seeing 'The Godfather' 25 years after its release confirms the film's status as a masterpiece. Knowing a little of its history, it's also something of a miracle.

March 16, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

It starts with sad notes on a trumpet and an undertaker's shaky credo, "I believe in America." It ended as a critical and popular sensation, the first motion picture to take in a million dollars a day, nominated for 10 Oscars and the opening salvo of a trilogy that has thus far taken in nearly a billion dollars in revenue worldwide.

"The Godfather" is back.

To mark the 25th anniversary of its debut, Paramount is re-releasing Francis Ford Coppola's two-hour, 55-minute film--taken together with "Godfather II" as great and lasting an American epic as the past quarter century has produced--this Friday in 20 theaters nationwide, with Mann's Chinese getting the Los Angeles booking.

New prints have been struck for the occasion (though the well-traveled original negative was not restored) and the film's soundtrack has been digitally remastered and transformed from mono to stereo. A new book, "The Godfather Legacy," has come out crammed with behind-the-scenes details of a motion picture that author Harlan Lebo calls "that rarest commodity in filmmaking: an overwhelming financial success that is also a creative masterpiece."

While the M-word is probably the most overused and abused in the critical lexicon, there can't be much doubt that "The Godfather" merits the description. Its dark-side-of-the-American-dream story of Michael Corleone's rise to power as the modern successor to his aging father, Don Vito, emerges gradually from a welter of incident, a thrust and parry of action and reaction, betrayal and revenge that demands to be described as Shakespearean.

It's not only that this film, like those 16th century dramas, can be watched repeatedly without loss of interest. It's that "The Godfather" is overflowing with life, rich with all the grand emotions and vital juices of existence, up to and including blood. And its deaths, like that of Hotspur in "Henry IV, Part I," continue to shock no matter how often we've watched them coming.

Yet though its characters are as out-sized as any of Shakespeare's nobility, "The Godfather" also benefits by the attention it pays to humanizing detail, to small moments like a little girl dancing on hulking Tessio's shoes at Connie Corleone's wedding or its authentic sense of Italian family dining. Excessive but natural, larger than life yet always lifelike, "The Godfather's" people are grounded in an underlying reality that is completely recognizable.

*

The collaboration between director and co-writer (with novelist Mario Puzo) Coppola and meticulous cinematographer Gordon Willis expressed a different kind of duality. Both literally and metaphysically, "The Godfather" alternates between darkness and light, between the Don's funereal study and his daughter's sun-lit wedding, between the pure love of Michael for his Sicilian bride and the messes his siblings have made of their marriages. And, most famously, in the intercutting between the baptism of Connie's son (played by baby Sofia Coppola, later notoriously featured in "Godfather III") and Michael Corleone's brutal assumption of power.

None of this, of course, would work as well as it did without the exceptional ensemble acting, which extended down to character actors like Richard Castellano as Clemenza, a workaday mobster with a "leave the gun, take the cannoli" attitude. And when it comes to stars like Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, it's almost shocking to realize how early in their careers this film caught them, at a time when they were light on their feet and the characters they played had yet to ossify into Mafia cliches.

Looming above all these players, even for the long stretches when he's not on screen, is Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. It's a commanding performance in every sense, part realistic, part theatrical, filled with showy gestures and real artistry. For every scene that skirts the edge of excess, there are beautiful, almost unnoticed moments, like the magisterial way the Don plays with a kitten while conducting business. And it's in his foibles, his fondness for fresh fruit and his family, that we come to feel the essential humanity of the man.

While seeing "The Godfather" on the big screen again is to frankly marvel at how undated it remains, reading about it in Lebo's book, Peter Biskind's earlier "The Godfather Companion" and the files in the motion picture academy's Margaret Herrick Library generates wonder of a different sort. How, given the chaos that attended every step of its creation, did this film possibly turn out so well?

For almost every creative decision, even the ones that seem obvious now, was taken in the face of intense opposition by someone. Even the original novel, which ended up on the bestseller list for 67 weeks and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, was unlikely: Its author, Mario Puzo, had never known a real gangster when he began to write a book that he initially called "Mafia."

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