There's nothing like a summer wedding, and now the Second World War is over, this one is as much a celebration of peace as it is a celebration that Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) sees his daughter Connie (Talia Shire) married today. But he also finds business entering into the scheme of things, as it is said that no Don can deny a request when his daughter is being wed, for the Corleone family are one of the powerful crime syndicates in the United States, having moved operations from Sicily some years before. He hears all sorts of pleas, but is well aware he can use them as leverage when the men making those requests have to pay back their debts to him, and not necessarily in cash: Don Corleone is very canny when it comes to his dealings...
But who will take his place when he goes, as he is not getting any younger? Do any of his three sons have what it takes to keep the family business together? Sonny (James Caan) is a hothead, and liable to fly off the handle at the drop of a hat, Fredo (John Cazale) is weak-willed and flighty, whereas war hero Michael (Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with the gangsters he has grown up around and plans to marry a non-Italian, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), as a break with unlovely tradition. Can he get away with that? As The Godfather is one of the most famous films ever made, forever held up as not simply a classic of the nineteen-seventies but of all time as well, you may know the answer to that question.
Although director Francis Ford Coppola's work garnered many awards, Oscars included, it was not universally liked, as the naysayers accused it of romanticising some deeply unromantic people and situations. Yet what they seemed to have missed was that while the look of the film had a warm, rosy glow of nostalgia, it was not necessarily offering up the notion that mobsters were something to aspire to, simply something that we had to acknowledge were a part of the past, and indeed had seen their influence last into the present into the bargain. Gordon Willis's luminous photography certainly rendered even the ugliest image absorbing, but the script by Coppola and Mario Puzo, who had penned the thick, pulpy novel source, continually reminded us of the evil we were seeing.
Corruption was the theme, on both a personal and a national, even global level, as we watch the Corleones' power spreading like a disease through American society, ostensibly an olive oil importer but actually with their fingers in quite a few pies. Everything decent here is dragged down into the Hell of violence, betrayal and moral waste, as time and again Coppola would show us some institution or custom or emotion that we are supposed to hold dear as a civilised society, then would undercut those visuals with a reminder of just how flawed these participants were, and in many cases not simply flawed but actively baleful too. The violence punctuated the drama as intermittently it would turn to a thriller, albeit one with a consciously self-important air.
The wedding, the happiest day of Connie's life, is interspersed with a horrible story about revenge-seeking, Sonny committing adultery with a guest, and Michael sharing an illustrative tale with Kay about what his family are capable of in their dealings. Then there's Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year, which is the cue for a lengthy section which starts with the presents and familiar tunes, but quickly turns sour as Vito's main gift turns out to be a hail of bullets from one of his supposed associates. There follows Michael's growing acceptance he cannot escape his destiny, a horrible, creeping sensation of a man who vowed to be pure but is dragged down with the rest of the corrupt as he first tries to save his father's life, and then avenge it as he does in the riveting restaurant sequence; he had killed for freedom in the war, now he kills to protect the criminal interests that are fast becoming more relevant to him than he would ever have admitted to previously.
Marlon Brando, who won the Best Actor Oscar, had been much imitated and indeed lampooned for his reading of Don Corleone (under Dick Smith's superb makeup), but you cannot deny he created an iconic performance, just about the last time he would actually portray a character as if he actually cared how it would turn out on the screen and in his legacy. Meanwhile it was instructive to note Pacino's increasingly sinister underplaying as Michael in contrast with how far he went over the top in the decades to come, but every actor here was impressive here in one of the finest ensembles assembled in this decade. There was plenty of plot to get through, but testament to the makers it never became confusing, allowing you to experience with either indulgent excitement or appalled interest at the kind of organisation that greases the wheels of the nation yet is rarely acknowledged in polite society, serving the uncomfortable message that every empire is built on bloodshed to some degree or other. Maybe it was a celebration after all, and this film had succumbed to what it depicted. Music by Nino Rota.