Because it’s good to expand your cultural horizons from time to time, and because it seemed inconceivable that I’d never seen it before, I decided to watch The Godfather recently. I was sure I’d be treated to a cinematic tour de force, that I’d never look upon film in the same way again, and that I’d be totally enraptured by the intricacies and relationships of the Corleone family. Instead, I found myself bored, clock-watching, and wishing I was in front of a documentary about holidaying teenagers on BBC Three instead.
First off, it’s very long, isn’t it? I realise it’s a lazy criticism but if you’re going to tell a story over the course of three hours, it needs a few elements to keep your attention from wandering. I’m not talking a Michael Bay explosions-gasm, but some intrigue, tension and character exploration wouldn’t have gone amiss. Instead, what I got was a load of guys muttering intensely at one another and metaphorically waving their dicks around for the duration.
What’s perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the basis for a brilliant film is there. For the uninitiated, the basic premise is that a feared mafia boss, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), is coming to the end of his reign, a realisation brought upon him when he’s shot by a rival faction. One of his three sons must take over the family business but he has a difficult choice ahead of him. Fredo (John Cazale) is considered too green, Sonny (James Caan) is too hot-headed, and Michael (Al Pacino) has just returned from World War II, and doesn’t seem all that bothered about being a mobster anyway. Initially, Sonny assumes the mantle but then he gets killed in an ambush, so Michael takes on the role and… he’s quite good at it. And that’s about it.
It’s a decent starting premise, but annoyingly, every time an avenue of interest opens up, the film either bypasses it or shuts it down completely. The most obvious one is Michael’s potential turmoil at having to do a job he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t agree with, and his subsequent development into the role. At the start of the film, it’s Michael’s sister’s wedding, and it’s clear he sees himself as the outsider of the family. He sits apart from the rest, more interested in spending time with his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), than making small talk and ingratiating himself with family friends. For the film’s first act, he always seems uneasy, for reasons that are never hinted at or built upon. Then Vito gets shot.
Michael goes to visit Vito in hospital and circumstances conspire against him so that he has to protect his father from another attempt on his life. Does he quiver in the face of such responsibility? Does he wrestle with inner conflict at this sudden promotion? No, he just gets on with it, and from that moment on, he’s another character entirely. There’s no subtle change in mood or anything like that – one moment he’s one person, and the next he’s someone else altogether. Soon, he’s shot a police officer in cold blood in a restaurant, spent a bit of time in Sardinia, and then comes back to be head of the family as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
But what of the relationship between Sonny and Michael? They’re diametric opposites, surely there’s potential for disagreements? They might be the mob, but they’re still just a family with the usual idiosyncratic dynamics, right? Well, not really, because there’s no power struggle or even a hint of a quarrel. Sonny does the job he’s been groomed for, gets killed, and then Michael does it. Michael’s girlfriend, who’s such a distraction from the family in the opening scene, becomes a faceless mafia wife who barely protests. Considering Michael goes to great pains at the start to assure her that he’s not like his family, she takes his transformation into alpha-male patriarch without reaction.
Then there are the major events that are simply not dealt with. For example, the Corleone family have an unofficial adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall). His role in the family is never explained – it seems unlikely that such a violent and insular group would take someone unrelated under their wing in such a way. How someone such as Tom could rise to become so indispensable to the Corleones would make an interesting tale but again, it’s not expanded upon. Likewise, the demise of Michael’s first wife, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). During Michael’s exile in Sicily, he meets and marries a local girl, who is then killed by an explosion meant for Michael. After that, he just returns to America – no sadness, no soul-searching, he just gets on with it. When he meets Kay again after years without contact, he doesn’t mention he’s now a widower. In fact, no-one ever mentions Apollonia or the attempt upon Michael’s life again, and neither of these things ever come back to haunt him.
Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the current golden age of television where plots are given space to breathe and slowly reveal themselves over multiple episodes. In something like The Wire, for example, the characters are so rich and detailed, and they have the time to develop, meaning you’re more likely to empathise with them as their stories are told. The Godfather is long as far as films go, but it spends its time examining the banalities of hierarchies and showing how it’s done its homework on the mafia instead.
While it might be well-produced, beautifully shot, and a whole heap of other things that don’t really matter to those of us who aren’t fully-fledged cineastes, it remains disappointing, and it baffles me as to why it’s considered one of the greatest films ever made. I’m fully aware that parts II and III are out there, but you’ll not catch me wasting my Friday night sitting through a Francis Ford Coppola borefest again.