It’s hard to overestimate the impact of The Godfather in American cinema, and American popular culture more generally – so hard that it can be equally difficult to recover what must have made the film seem so refreshing and revolutionary at the time. Virtually all of the film is contained and foreshadowed in the sustained opening scene, which cuts between two spaces that become absolutely central to the address of the rest of the film, and the next two films. On the one hand, we are introduced to Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, on the day of his daughter’s wedding. As custom dictates, Vito, who is the ageing head of the New York Mafia, is holding conference with his captains and community, since a Don can’t refuse a reasonable offer on the day of his daughter’s marriage. On the other hand, we are introduced to the wider Corleone family, and the broader Italian-American community, through a series of scenes that take place outside, as the wedding is unfolding.
These two opening spaces are at once quite distinct, and folded into a dialectic relationship with each other that the trilogy is never able to quite resolve. Both of them also introduce us to most of the central characters of the trilogy, including Vito’s sons Michael, played by Al Pacino, and Sonny, played by James Caan, along with his daughter Connie, played by Talia Shire, and his consigliere Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, while Michael’s girlfriend Kay, played by Diane Keaton, is also present in these early moments. However, the style and look of these two spaces offsets any clear sense of synergy between these characters. The indoor scenes are defined by men conferring in tactile proximity, their black tuxes dissolving into a textured darkness that makes it quite difficult to discern fixtures and furniture. By contrast, the outdoor scenes are bright and effusive, taking us through a full spectrum of Italian-American marital spectacles and rituals, from the most Italian to the most American.
Between these two spaces, Coppola establishes the heightened naturalism of his 70s and 80s output, while also setting up the driving narrative of the entire Godfather trilogy. As we move between inside and outside, it’s clear that the Mafia is meant to be a way for Italian-Americans to maintain their connection to the old country, and to elude the pitfalls of American capitalism by continuing older traditions of familial and feudal allegiance. However, the dissonance of these two opening spaces also foreshadows that the Corleone family, far from providing a respite from American capitalism, will end up intensifying and internalizing its brutality. Rather than reiterating the connection between Italian-Americans and their Italian forebears, the Corleone empire will chart a gradual but inexorable process of deracination that alienates Michael from Italy when he returns, for good, in the third film.
Beyond the pulpy overtones of Mario Puzo’s novel, then, Coppola’s adaptation is a meditation on how Italian-Americans have fashioned their own self-image and their connection to Italy through the Mafia, even when they are not involved in the Mafia – and the role of cinema and Hollywood in perpetuating this process. After this sustained opening scene, the film quickly jumps from New York to Hollywood, and from organized crime to the film industry, as if Coppola were trying to evoke the legacy of the Mafia on American cinema, but also the lack of any adequate cinematic language to capture that legacy. Tom Hagen’s first assignment from Vito is to secure a leading role for one of their associates in exchange for union favours, while the first space we see after the opening scene is the house of the producer that Hagen must coerce. While this house is just as palatial as the Corleone compound, it doesn’t have the same interiority, or the same cloistered sense of inside and outside, since the California light gets into every nook and cranny. From the very outset, the spaces and language of the film industry are presented as inadequate to the impact of the Mafia, meaning that Coppola has to invent a new film language to grasp them.
This new cinematic language revolves around etiquette as a tactile pursuit – keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer, as Vito famously puts it. Throughout the film, men are continually touching, and reading body language as the most important indicator of trust – the same body language that Martin Scorsese elegized so movingly in The Irishman. Bolstered by Gordon Willis’ incredible cinematography, Coppola evokes a new kind of cinematic confraternity between men, established in the opening interior scenes by a darkness that is so intense, compared to the light outside, that it dissolves all the tuxedos, leaving faces and gestures to glide, free-floating, across an inky substrate that’s equated with the exquisite granularity of the film itself. When men do speak in these spaces, they tend to speak in aphorisms that brim with cinematic quotability, turning speech itself into another one of the masculine haptic textures that exude everything that can’t be spoken in the film. Time and again, Coppola returns to these moments where men are forced into close proximity, or else situates his scenes in sparsely populated spaces that draw the few men who drift across them into a similarly textural proximity, whether they intend it or not.
This textured relation between men heightens the pacing of the film, as we move between stillness and action, reflecting the cyclical nature of the Mafia, the rise and fall of Dons, and the precarity of those in power. However, this focus on body language also tends to displace the Italian language, which starts out as a reminder of the old country, but then reminds us that these characters can never really go back to the old country, no matter how much the Mafia might promise to restore it. One of the key dramatic cruxes in this first film is Michael’s decision to murder two men who tried to murder Vito, and so commit himself to a life of organized crime, despite initially distancing himself from the family business. At first, it seems questionable whether Michael will be able to commit this act, since he seems like a sensitive character. The tipping-point turns out to be an Italian conversation that his two targets have just before the murder – a conversation that isn’t subtitled, unlike many similar conversations so far in the film. As Coppola amplifies the noise of this unsubtitled conversation, Michael’s disconnection from his Italian roots causes him to snap, and the murders are attributed to his Italian dislocation as much as the compulsion to avenge Vito.
Ironically, Michael has to flee to Italy to escape being prosecuted for this murder, suggesting that the Mafia may perhaps, in its own, way, ensure a connection between Italian-Americans and their homeland. Yet when the subtitles recur to translate the dialogue in these Italian scenes, they emphasise Michael’s dislocation, and his inability to properly acclimatize to his mother tongue. This dislocation occurs gradually, however, since at first Coppola presents this Italian “return” in distinctly nostalgic terms, introducing the trilogy’s most distinctive musical refrain during these bucolic and sun-drenched scenes. It’s telling, though, that Michael ends up in a town where all the men are dead because of Mafia vendettas, and has to ask for a translator precisely at the moment when he chooses to disclose himself as a member of the Italian-American Mafia. Similarly, while Michael might marry Apollonia, a local Italian woman played by Simonetta Stefanelli, his wedding is juxtaposed with his sister Connie being abused by her new husband – a juxtaposition that draws out the deep fissures and dissonances of the opening wedding celebrations, as does a sequence in which Kay arrives at the Corleone house the next morning, looking for Michael.
Not only does this passage rupture the Mafia fantasy of restoring the old country, but it promises that many of the contradictions of the Corleone family will revolve around their treatment of women. Around the same time, Sonny’s rage at Connie’s domestic abuse induces him to impulsively leave the Corleone compound against the express advice of Tom Hagen, leading to his grisly murder on the New Jersey Turnpike – exactly the anonymous American space that the Mafia’s vicarious homeland is meant to conquer and contain. Meanwhile, Michael is also targeted in Italy, but Apollonia ends up taking the brunt of the violence against him, when she is blown up in a car explosion that was intended to kill him.
Throughout this middle part of the film, Coppola suggests that the Mafia reiterates the dissonance between Italian-Americans and Italians precisely when it appears to be assuaging it – and that women tend to be the collateral damage needed to make this paradoxical process seem sustainable. Similarly, the trilogy as a whole suggests that films about the Mafia reiterate the dissonance between Italian-Americans and white Americans precisely when it appears to be assuaging it, turning the Mafia into a point of reference that is both inescapable and inadequate in capturing the reality of the Italian-American experience. In both cases, Coppola has to resort to a hyperreal film language to evoke both the centrality of the Mafia mythos to Italian-American heritage, and its fantastic dimensions, making The Godfather one of the formative neo-noirs of the 1970s and 1980s, especially in its hyperreal sense of space, which tends to be heightened during night scenes, or when the action is removed to Italy. Both the nocturnal and Italian scenes take us out of the regular naturalism of the daylight American scenes, capturing the Mafia ethos as a hyperreal fantasy that requires a certain postmodern capacity for pastiche to adequately represent it.
To some extent, Michael, as well as Coppola, has to resort to pastiche, and hyperreality, once he becomes Don, since he quickly discovers that he has to maintain the fantasmatic sheen of the Mafia, along with handling its daily economic and structural operations. This awareness of the hyperreal overtones of Mafioso fantasy distinguishes Michael from Vito, whose lived connection to Italy was more direct, and whose leadership was centred in the established Italian-American spaces of New York City. By contrast, Michael rapidly expands the family’s empire to Las Vegas, and then Florida and Cuba, in the second film, to try and conquer the gambling and drug markets. Time and again, Vito expresses his disapproval for Mafia involvement in drug dealing, but Coppola gradually suggests that this is as much a spatial as a business decision on Vito’s past, since the most disruptive element of the Corleone drug trade is the way it expands the action out from New York to Las Vegas. By moving to Vegas, the hyperreal image capital of America, Michael concedes that being a Mafia Don is as much about image management as economic management, setting him a unique project for the second film, which also happens to be Coppola’s project – to evoke a new hyperreal space that corresponds to global circuits of drug distribution and cash flow, while also maintaining the hushed, inky proximity established in the opening sequence here.
Michael’s project and Coppola’s project thereby converge on the need to create a new kind of image – an image that is hyperreal enough to displace reality, but also grounded in the tactile proximity of powerful and visionary men; in other words, an image commensurate to the ambitions, and the limitations, of New Hollywood. In the wake of Vito’s death, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, the need for this image becomes even more urgent, as the removal of Vito’s lived connection to Italy ruptures the tactile intimacy and hyperreal vistas of Coppola’s palette and sets them into stark opposition with each other. This is especially clear in the visual syntax of Vito’s funeral, which alternates between the tactile murk of mourners around the grave, and the hyperreal clarity of the freeways and sky that surround Calvary Cemetery, in Queens, where the funeral takes place. Following this scene, Michael takes the intense haptic communion he shares with the other mourners back to the vast spaces of Vegas, where the visual schism of the burial scene continues, as Michael perpetually wears black to offset the lurid hyperreality of the casinos.
This burial scene thus becomes the central schism of the Godfather trilogy, as well as for The Sopranos several decades later, which continues many of the anxieties of Coppola’s three films, and is particularly preoccupied with the third. Many key scenes in The Sopranos take place in or around the Jersey City Cemetery, which features a similar backdrop of elevated highways to the Calvary Cemetery. Within The Godfather, this visual schism corresponds to the way in which Vito dies – with a lemon in his mouth, pretending to be a monster, chasing his granddaughter, who will later be played by Sofia Coppola, through a bucolic tangle of vines and vegetables in his own backyard. At once pastoral and monstrous, Vito is last seen alive from two generations in the future, capturing Coppola’s struggle, and the film’s struggle, to remember the first mythic wave of Italian-American immigrants in a way that is true, both to their actual lives and to the fantasies of homeland that they helped to create.
Yet this space between lived experience and fantastic reconstruction remains unresolved throughout The Godfather, and indeed throughout the entire trilogy. In the climactic scene of the film, Michael participates in an untranslated Italian church service, before almost being assassinated. Gradually, the escalating organ is fused with the escalating Italian, before both converge with the escalating Latin of the liturgy. For a brief moment, Coppola looks forward to the third film, which settles on the Catholic Church as the final fantasy of homeland, as if the ultimate goal of the Mafia, and the Italian-American project, were to find a circuitous route back to the Vatican – the homeland of homeland – turning Coppola’s trilogy into a latter-day reworking of the Divine Comedy, but without the full ascent to Paradise at the end. Perhaps that’s why the storytelling seems so literary here, often rivalling the scope and scale of a novel, or an epic poem. Even though the third film was initially seen as an afterthought, or epilogue, it’s amazing how its key concerns are already foreshadowed too – and how necessary it now feels to the concerns of the first two films.
Beyond the trilogy, every major scene here feels as if it has inspired a hundred other scenes, as Coppola’s – and Michael’s – new kind of image – at once hyperreal and situated deep within the male body – uses the gangster film to establish a new kind of male melodrama, a male weepie that’s every bit as lurid and emotive as the daytime melodramas of the 1950s. Combining pulp fiction with arthouse duration, Coppola revels in the mismatch between his source material and directorial style, producing scenes of great intensity, but also a bit of a bloated feeling at times too. While this male melodrama is undoubtedly original, it also has its own limitations, especially since the screenplay is largely episodic, consisting of a string of self-contained scenes, or even self-contained films, that don’t always quite hang together. Nevertheless, Coppola would gradually perfect this episodic approach in the use of rhythmic flashbacks in The Godfather Part II, and the fluid episodic style of Apocalypse Now, both of which take the grand cinematic vision of The Godfather to a totally new level, often making this feel – incredibly – like an apprentice film, or a first draft, by comparison.