The Godfather: Review
by Leif Eric Harty
The Godfather is an iconic film, created by a well-known director, Francis Ford Coppola. It has seen the release of two sequels, two video games, and countless merchandising recreations. It is one of those films that “you just have to see.” Yet, somehow or another, I had never gotten around to seeing it until just recently. When I first watched it, I was struck by the overall quality of the film, but rather than talk about that, I’d like to focus on a few of the nitty gritty aspects that make the film look good.
The most iconic sequence from this film is the opening scene, as it really sets the tone for much of the film moving forward. The scene opens on a tight shot of a distressed man named Amerigo Bonasera, dimly lit from above his head. After he talks for a while, it cuts to a similar shot of Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather. The Don’s lighting is a bit different, with more of the background visible, but otherwise still very similar. The uniqueness of the lighting in the beginning of this scene pushed me to do a little research on what Coppola and Gordon Willis were trying to accomplish with it. I was surprised to find a wide variety of explanations for the purpose of the lighting setup for this scene. I ultimately decided it would just be best to go with what I thought it accomplished, given that there was such a variety of opinions on the subject. I went back and revisited the scene, spent some time with it, and made some notes about the impression it left me.
It occurred to me that the lighting really emphasizes the emotion of the scene. Bonasera has come to the Don in desperate need of help. His monologue and subsequent conversation with the Don explain that he has exhausted all other avenues of justice and thus feels helpless and alone. Bonasera feels completely isolated, and that’s exactly what the lighting communicates. He is lit from above, which creates dramatic shadows on his face, and nothing in the background is visible. The camera zooms out, revealing faint traces of a background, but Bonasera is still completely separated by the dramatic contrast of light and dark.
The Don is lit similarly, except the background is much more present. His lighting setup does not serve to establish the same feeling of isolation. Rather, it maintains a high level of drama, cuing the audience in to the fact that this is still an intense situation. As the cuts continually move further and further out to encompass the whole room, it becomes apparent that the room is actually much brighter than the first shot indicated. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is still relatively dim. By the end of the scene, it has become clear that this room is an important place, and it sets up the character of Don Corleone.
This scene leaves a mark on the audience, whether they realize it or not. After I had analyzed this scene, I re-watched the entire film and noticed other scenes where the lighting reflected characters’ emotional states. I think the first scene really sets the audience up to be on the lookout for that approach to lighting, whether they’re aware of it or not. Similarly, the other big scene that caught my eye was the baptism scene, where Michael Corleone’s goddaughter is baptized. As far as character development goes, it serves a purpose similar to the first scene. However, it goes about it in a completely different way.
The baptism scene solidifies a significant change in Michael’s character. At the beginning of the movie, he is the innocent son, a war hero who has no interest in the family business. By the end of the movie, however, he has completely taken over the family business and replaced his father as the Godfather. Whereas the first scene explains a reality by showing it to be the case, this scene explains a reality by showing that it is not the case. The scene takes place in a church, with the Corleone family gathered around to witness the baptism of Michael’s goddaughter. As the ritual commences, a montage begins. In the montage we see different individuals doing a variety of things. This montage is intercut with the baptism scene in the church, and it quickly becomes apparent that the other individuals are going about rituals of their own. Some are loading guns, one is getting a shave at the barber, another is having a smoke, etc. Organ music from the church plays through each clip of the montage, which climaxes in the murder of several key people that stand in opposition to the Corleone family.
The juxtaposition comes into play when Michael begins affirming his belief in Jesus Christ and renouncing Satan and his deeds. As Michael renounces Satan, all of his henchmen begin committing murder. If we followed the baptism scene like the opening scene, we would be lead to believe that Michael was a God-fearing man. However, the montage intercut with the baptism tells us that he is not in fact a God-fearing man. The first scene showed us how things are, whereas this scene tells us how things are not. I think parallels can also be drawn between the straightforwardness of the first scene and Vito Corleone’s character, and the contradictoriness of the baptism scene and Michael’s character.
The Godfather is a fantastic film. It is worth watching purely for the fact that it manages to retain an audience’s attention for nearly three straight hours, without feeling like a three-hour movie. However, it is also worth watching for detailed analysis. Francis Ford Coppola and his team put a lot of effort into making a well-crafted film, and it really shows through in the intentionality of the visuals in the film.