Beautiful gangsters

Bibek Bhattacharya        Print Edition: November 15, 2009

The first time you see The Godfather, it is usually an epochal experience. From Nino Rota’s chillingly elegiac score and the autumnal brown tones of the film, to the deliberate and studied performances on screen, it is a heady experience. And yet, it’s hard not to watch it, or the sequels, without feeling quite depressed. They aren’t depressing films, but if you’ve watched them as many times as I have, and know just how Michael Corleone is going to ultimately shoot himself in the foot with his hubris, it’s all you can do to stop yourself from crying.

This is where the true power of the film lies. It makes you root for really evil men, without a conscience and with a ruthless will to power. Francis Ford Coppola’s three films are primarily about family and the need for a fiercely patriarchal unit to function as a closely-knit tribe where women, children and property are controlled and protected. In The Godfather, we’re invited to contrast Marlon Brando’s Don Vito with Al Pacino’s Don Michael. The former adheres to a strict code of conduct and is something of an aristocrat among gangsters. He has seen the world and knows how to gently bully people. Following an attempt on his life, his heir apparent, hotheaded eldest son Sonny goes on a rampage and gets himself killed. This forces Vito’s youngest son Michael to enter the family business. Where Sonny was clueless, Michael is focussed and cunning. He easily out-guesses—and in the chilling finale outguns—his rivals to make the Corleone clan the biggest in the East.

The change of Michael from fresh-faced war hero to a ruthless killer is one of the most stunning transformations in cinema, and The Godfather Part II is probably Al Pacino’s finest moment. Set a few years after the first film, here we find the Corleone family trying to expand in the gambling business out West as well as trying to get a toehold in pre-revolution Cuba. The real stunner though, is the parallel story about the young Don Vito—a bravura performance by Robert De Niro—finding his feet in Depression era New York. Not only does this deepen the emotional wallop of the film, but Coppola manages to beautifully recreate the Italian immigrant life of that era. The juxtaposition of the two stories is poignant. While Vito arrives as an orphan and finds family, community and power, Michael’s ever growing empire of dark intrigue and treachery spares no one. By the end of the film, as Michael broods in the centre of a splendid isolation of his own devising, we are reminded of the pride of Lucifer, and his subsequent fall.

The Godfather Part III is a relatively minor film, but essential nonetheless. Set in the ’70s, Michael Corleone is now an aging patriarch, feared and respected in equal parts. After decades of trying, he has almost managed to make the family business legitimate, as well as tying up the personal loose ends. Poised on the brink of escaping his violent legacy once and for all, fate deals him one last cruel hand. A fitting end to a great series.

The present box set has a feature packed extra DVD, containing quite an exhaustive collection of nuggets for The Godfather obsessive. The featurette “The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t” is an interesting documentary on the problems Coppolla faced from the studio during filmmaking, as well as another interesting one on the laborious post-production of the film. Elsewhere, stalwarts like Alec Baldwin appraise the films’ impact on Hollywood. These and other add-ons are a welcome addition. A must-buy.

The Godfather gift set retails for Rs 1,499 and is available from BIG Music Video

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