In cinematic terms, I sometimes wish I’d already been around during the 1970s. It’s the big films of that decade that I most regret seeing at the cinema. Thank god for good repertory cinemas, though: thanks to my favourite rep cinema, I’ve been able to see the likes of Apocalypse Now on the big screen – and the theatrical experience definitely makes a difference in terms of how potent these classics are.
Last week, as part of a series on migrants (which includes such different fare as Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9), I was finally able to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II on the big screen. The film is gorgeous to look at, with Gordon Willis’ Rembrandtesque cinematography an absolute triumph, and it’s a joy to see Pacino and De Niro in peak form, their acting specific and nuanced and entirely unlike the personas we’ve seen them embrace all too often since. The way I watch the film has changed in other ways as well, though, and these have nothing to do with the big-screen format. That difference is due to me having watched the entirety of The Sopranos in he meantime.
Since I first saw the classics of Italian-American mob cinema, I’ve seen a lot of discussion on the topic of whether directors like Coppola or Martin Scorsese glorify the Mob. Certainly, films like Scorsese’s Goodfellas have a seductive quality, even when they highlight the ugliness of the world they depict. The Godfather films are different, though. They don’t exactly turn their protagonists into good guys, but they give them a tragic dimension akin to the villains in a Shakespeare play. Michael Corleone especially, in particular in The Godfather Part II, has a tragic grandeur that is much further from the grubby, self-serving shenanigans of Tony Soprano than New Jersey is from New York.
Does this mean that Coppola’s films glorify the Mafia? We do see evil being done by the Corleone criminal empire. While we don’t see the act itself, a prostitute is killed bloodily in order to blackmail a US senator into doing Michael’s bidding. (He was given a chance to play ball beforehand, but the consequences for his ugly, racist behaviour towards Michael are borne not by him but by an innocent woman.) At the same time, much of the violence we see is enacted against others that are shown to be bad themselves: at best they’re corrupt, at worst they’re murderers themselves. And even as we watch Michael lose his soul, we feel sorry for him, as we feel sorry for poor, weak, sweet Fredo.
What we only see very, very rarely is the victims on the ground, and this is a big difference to The Sopranos. The Godfather films don’t exactly portray mob crime as victimless, but The Godfather Part II definitely has this notion that there are good godfathers and bad godfathers, that you can have a certain nobility as the head of a mafia family. In juxtaposing the rise of Vito Corleone with the tragedy of Michael, the film definitely makes us root for young Vito, and it makes us long for the regal wisdom of Brando’s Don. In the world of The Godfather, Don Vito is closer to a Shakespearean king than to a criminal and a murderer. When we see Vito and Michael Corleone kill, the people they kill are murderers and villains that we don’t shed any tears for. The matter is somewhat different with respect to the people killed at Michael’s behest, but here too, the way these murders are filmed they are touched by the grandeur that suffuses the film.
The Godfather films aren’t documentaries. They do not have to depict the reality of the Italian-American Mafia. As quasi-Shakespearean tragedy, they work brilliantly. Michael, in particular as performed by a young Al Pacino, carries this tragedy well. But when you use organised crime as your motif, you open yourself up to criticism. There are many films that depict this particular underworld as cool and fun – I’m thinking more of the films of Guy Ritchie than those by Scorsese, as Scorsese never looks away from the ugly reality even when he shows the lure of this world -, but it’s The Godfather that Tony Soprano and his entourage quote compulsively. They enjoy this idea that they are wearing the mantle of grandeur, of epic tragedy. They like thinking of themselves as Shakespearean kings and princes. Strangely enough, they never quote the scene in The Godfather Part II where a man wakes up next to a butchered woman who was killed as a means to an end, a scene that suggests that there’d be an entirely different, and possibly more honest, story to tell, one without the pretty veneer of Shakespearean grandeur.