Rite and ritual: Our ongoing obsession with The Godfather
By now, just about everybody knows The Godfather wasn't supposed to be a hit, let alone the movie that would alter the course of Hollywood production and marketing forever. During its long and troubled shoot, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the world's best-selling novel – as ubiquitous in its day as sideburns and muscle cars – had bomb written all over it. I knew this because I'd been following the news. (I was only 14 when The Godfather was released, but was already so pre-sold on the idea that I skipped school to take in an opening-week matinee.)
Throughout 1970 and 71, stories appeared regularly in the press concerning the movie, and few carried promising implications. We heard of the controversies surrounding the casting, how a young and relatively untried director had inherited the movie's key creative role; how the production proceeded under the heavy scrutiny of both legal and extra-legal Italian-American organizations; how Marlon Brando, already widely considered box office poison, had snatched the role of the title character from the likes of Burt Lancaster and Orson Welles after submitting to a screen test; how somebody named Al Pacino, and not Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or even Robert De Niro (who at least impressed the young director enough to be called back to play Brando's character as a young man, for The Godfather: Part II), had landed the pivotal role of the godfather's son Michael Corleone; how production had run over time and budget; how the criminal organization widely known as the Mafia – a word never mentioned in the movie – made its odious presence felt every time the Godfather crew shot outside on location in New York. Even in those days before cable TV, twenty-four-hour news channels, IMDb, ET, TMZ and Entertainment Weekly, nearly everybody knew The Godfather was coming.
What nobody knew, let alone expected, was that the movie would be both so good and so popular that almost nothing, at least in terms of how Hollywood produced, packaged and marketed its movies, would ever be the same after the release of The Godfather.
You could call it fate, or you could call it luck, but either way The Godfather had already taken on an aura of almost sinister inevitability by the time it opened in the early spring of 1972. For a movie so fraught with high-profile production issues – at more than one point Paramount, the film's already on-the-ropes studio, had even considered pulling the plug and re-shooting the whole movie as a low-budget contemporary exploitation picture – The Godfather not only seemed seamless, impeccably assured and unnervingly convincing (if this wasn't the way organized crime operated, it sure felt like it ought to be), it felt like it was exactly the movie it wanted to be. What no one suspected at the time, however, was that it would also be the exactly the movie we wanted it to be.
As many times as I've seen the movie and its sublime, perhaps even superior sequel – Part II, that is, and not the truly heartbreaking redundancy that is Part III – I am never less than amazed by how faultlessly seductive and immersive it is, even though I know almost every line by heart, everybody's fate and even when somebody like Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen (the Godfather's right-hand man) is about to stand up, cross a room and pour himself a drink. I can think of few other movies, and popular Hollywood movies in particular, where the process of re-watching is not only so rewarding but perhaps even critical in terms of fully experiencing the film. The fact is, The Godfather is a movie that actually grows and deepens on multiple viewing: the fullness of its vision, technique and narrative structure – which was actually enhanced and (unlike today) and enriched by the wrap-around stories told in Part II – only became more apparent, compelling and rewarding the more you watched it.
This, I think, is what partly accounts for our tireless fascination with the film's blighted production history: for a film that nearly didn't happen, or that nearly happened as a low-budget action movie aimed at grind houses and drive-ins, could be so, well, perfect. It was enough to make you wonder if The Godfather wasn't just meant to happen. If there weren't forces at work that suggested something close the pop cultural version of immaculate conception.
The sheer amount of compromising factors stacked up against the production therefore only confirmed its status as something that was meant to be. How else could one account for the almost immaculately seamless nature of the final result? In an odd way, when The Godfather appeared in 1972, it already seemed as though it had always been there.
When you think about it, The Godfather is itself about fate and inevitability. Taking solid structural hints from classic tragedy, classic gangster movie mythology, opera and epic Italian art-cinema sagas, the movie is ultimately about something as simple as an inverted fairy tale: it is the story of how Michael Corleone, the youngest of Don Vito Corleone's three sons, is drawn to fulfill and embody his father's ruthless criminal legacy despite his determination to keep his hands clean and live the normal life his war experience has entitled him too. (If there was one sequel to The Godfather I'd like to see, and which might function independently under the long shadow of the original, it would be the story of Michael Corleone's army days. It would show us how his experiences at war influenced his decision not to be involved in family business, and it might show us hints of that freeze-dried ruthlessness that would later qualify him not just as his father's successor, but a virtual extension of the old man as postwar criminal mastermind. Vito v2.0.
One of the most potent attractions at work in the movie is the idea of choice as an illusion. Michael may choose not to be the Godfather, but he ultimately has no choice; his destiny is fated by his blood and the pure power of tradition and ritual. There's a reason why the Catholic church figures so prominently in the movie as both a looming presence and a metaphor for the way the Corleones do things: from the rituals attending the daily business of the Godfather – the kissing of hands, the family feasts, the conducting of all matters pertaining to the family Corleone as a process as guarded, mysterious and hermetically airtight as the suburban fortress which becomes the Corleone stronghold following the war instigated by Michael's shooting of the men who nearly killed his father. (The precise moment when Michael's agency in his own destiny is itself shot dead.) It is a closed and entirely self-sufficient realm of action and reaction, and it sets rules that one either abides by or dies.
If The Godfather tends to invite an especially deep loyalty that pulls us back in as inexorably as Michael himself is lost to family destiny, one might want to consider the role that ritual plays both in the movie and in its effect. In the movie, the family business is depicted as something above and beyond the individual family members themselves. There are rules to be observed, traditions to be upheld, methods so precise and governed by “higher” principles they might as well be sacrosanct. And, in another, only slightly-distorted mirror realm, one can imagine the Corleone saga as a story of how a wayward son comes home to his father (or his Father), and takes his place in the pulpit. Squeeze your eyes a bit and you can see it: The Godfather as a story of one man's journey to a position of sacred influence. If he weren't such a sensationally adept killer, manipulator, liar and hypocrite, Michael would have made a helluva priest.
With the announcement last year that HBO was developing a project about the making of the movie called Francis and the Godfather (still in development at time of writing), it was once again made clear that this movie has a hold on us as firm and unyielding as the Corleone mythology that writes Michael's future for him. And in a way it sounds like a perfect way to re-visit this most unlikely of all blockbusters without in any way damaging, corrupting or depleting the original. (It is not, in other words, The Godfather Part III, a movie that compels attention primarily for how it demonstrates what happens when you tempt fate by presuming it will work in your favour.)
When I watch The Godfather now – and I don't really need to because it seems to be running one one channel or another in perpetuity – I realize that it's the very familiarity with the story that makes it so irresistible. Unlike so many other movies that are, as we like to say these days, “spoiled” by overly disclosed plot points, The Godfather works precisely because we know everything that will happen and everyone it will happen to. If anything, we can even take comfort from its depiction of loyalty and ritual as forms of living. From the beginning, when the movie provided a dark alternative to a world where things like loyalty and ritual had become abstract and elusive, the movie plunges us into a place where order is assured, solutions are provided and people are born to serve a function higher than themselves, impervious to individual desire or dreams. And there's comfort in that, even if the order and solutions provided for us tend to involve murder, treachery and even (as we'll see in Part II) fratricide. Like faith, one's attraction and devotion to the movie is something best not questioned. And when one enters it one might as well be entering a kind of holy sanctuary, a feeling that is only made more resonant by cinematographer Gordon Willis's decision to shoot the movie as a kind of candle-lit midnight Mass. (Naturally, Willis himself was nearly fired from the movie when the studio saw just how dark and murky his images were. Another instance of fate having other ideas.)
Watching has itself become a kind of ritual, and we attend to it with due reverence and full acceptance of an experience that might be the closest secular thing available to strict religious observation. The difference is there's nothing holy about the Corleone family or its business. And that's exactly why we watch in such awe: how can people so lacking in human souls conduct themselves with such unquestioning faith to their cause? How can the rites of spiritual longing and fulfillment so perfectly suit the Corleone family businesses of murder, extortion and sacrifice of its own blood? Part of us knows this: this is a dynasty of death and a family of murderers. But they have something so many of us want but lack: a sense of purpose, an acceptance of higher principles, and exemption from the maddening daily chaos of choice.
I personally suspect this is one of the most fascinating and revealing aspects of the enduring pop cultural currency of a movie now nearly a half century old. It offers us a vision of order, structure and loyalty that can't help but be mesmerizing for its relative lack in our own lives. It suggests that there is a way to live in complete faith and devotion to a higher cause, but the catch is the cause itself: just how holy is a church with real blood in its communion cup?