If there is a perfect example of the modern tragedy, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s epic ‘The Godfather’. As of 11/20/10, it stands at #2 on the IMDB.com top 250 movies; a biased, transient list, to be sure, but a testament to its power over the past two generations of filmgoers. The film is oft-cited, especially to amateur screenwriters, as the pinnacle of the dramatic craft. What makes this story so effective? What sets it, and other films we call “classic”, apart from the rest of the bunch?
The beautiful thing about ‘The Godfather’ is that it is brutally honest about the nature of evil. The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; and hell, it seems, would be best defined as that state in which one has imprisoned one’s conscience in a cell made of excuses. The conscience will kick against the walls and make the soul most uncomfortable, but the person will survive, perhaps wondering why every day has such a nagging sense of loss. It’s a state that, despite what we like to think about ourselves, we are all familiar with, and this makes the protagonist, Michael Corleone, a person with whom we deeply sympathize.
‘The Godfather’ is about the true villains of the world, and they seem awfully similar to its heroes. Michael, the youngest son of a Mafia don (or “Godfather”) initially keeps his distance from his beloved family, knowing full well the darkness inherit in the business. After his father’s gunned down by order of rival Dons, Michael’s love for his family overcomes his moral qualms and he deeply, personally makes their survival his business. It’s the Aristotelean tragedy; a man drawn to a terrible conclusion by a series of plausible, relatable events. Michael could have chosen to take the moral high ground and refused a life of murder, vengeance, and generational manipulation, and we would have understood and agreed with him. That he chooses his family over his own soul, we also understand, even if we wouldn’t necessarily agree. He even loses his ability to be intimate and honest with those closest to him, making the tragedy complete. It’s a complex dénouement for a complex problem, a bittersweet dish worth chewing on. We’re forced to examine ourselves. That’s the ideal function of cinema: clear reflection.
So we understand that its bittersweet flavor makes it a potent and prescient film. Contrasting triumph and tragedy is a hallmark of many great films, especially modern epics, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Star Wars’, and the much disputed ‘Matrix’ trilogy. Here, that dramatic contrast exists in one life, much like our own. We’re confronted by a flickering, silver mirror, and we’re forced to ask: “Is the image of Michael my own?”
Nino Rita’s beautiful Love Theme for ‘The Godfather’, as played by Andre Rieu
1972 trailer for ‘The Godfather’