I held the second screening of the Egyptian Repertory Theater on Friday, July 23. We continued our retrospective of Marlon Brando's career with The Godfather. For many reasons, it is hard to believe that Coppola made this film only twenty years after the last films we screened, Streetcar and Waterfront. The first two films had a limited scope and setting, focusing on a handful of characters and on the events of a few months. Godfather tells a story set in two countries, of two generations, transpiring over about ten years. The film is told on a grand scale with great set and location shots, a beautiful and memorable score, and compelling performances by Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall.
Marlon Brando transforms himself into Don Vito Corleone, the aging patriarch of the most influential mob family of the 1940's. He hopes that one of his sons can escape the legacy of his criminal activity, but even Michael (Pacino) succumbs to immersion in the family business, and futilely struggles to achieve legitimacy. We see virtues of fidelity, honor, and love perverted into greed, vengeance, and betrayal. Brando generates real presence and credibility in the role, and for years after seeing the film, I thought he must be an Italian American from New York and that the role wasn't much of a stretch. In fact, Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska of Dutch, French, English, and Irish stock. He was also only 47 at the time, but his manner and bearing--as well as great makeup--easily concealed the fact.
Some of those in attendance rediscovered an appreciation for the film. It contains some iconic sequences that have been so often imitated that you can forget the film is not just a concatenation of a few of these set pieces (the severed horse head, the shooting on the causeway, the tumbling oranges). Godfather is a moving account of the tragedy of Vito's life exploring big themes. Just as Waterfront depicts the redemption of Terry Malloy, Godfather also shows a man seeking redemption. But Vito and Michael cannot achieve redemption for the lives they chose. In the film's climax, as Michael renounces Satan during the christening of his nephew and godson, Coppola juxtaposes the carnage of Michael's vengeance.