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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Danny Leigh

This thing of ours: why does The Godfather still ring true 50 years on?

Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Mob-handed … Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Photograph: Alamy/Allstar

We have no choice but to show respect. To be clear, it is unequivocal good news that The Godfather is being rereleased. The pretext is its 50th anniversary but, really, it should be reissued every year for the sheer cinematic hell of it. Excellent, too, that it is being followed by both sequels. (Yes, The Godfather III deserves your love.) To see these genius films on a big screen, in a dark room, the way they were intended, etc etc: bellissimo! And yet on another level: irrelevant. In 2022, we are watching The Godfather all the time already.

The influence is everywhere; in movies but far more than that. For now, let’s stick with entertainment and consider Succession. Deep inside 2022’s most state-of-the-art storytelling are Francis Ford Coppola’s 50-year-old themes: the boss and the shadow his power casts across cursed adult children. The dramas of Waystar Royco have their own energy, but also enough of a debt for each run to end in homage. Warning: spoilers. The first season finale took place backstage at a wedding, how The Godfather began; in the second, a Fredo-style kiss preceded betrayal; in the third, another wedding, more treachery and a closing shot that winked so hard at Coppola, fans called Matthew Macfadyen’s family-by-marriage sap “The Tomfather”.

The Godfather is right here and now. And how odd that can seem, not just from the half century between it and us, but because it was old world even in 1972. The original came in a burnished past tense, set in the 40s and 50s; The Godfather II rewound decades more. Then the movies themselves became nostalgia trips. For years, they have been symbols of the high ground of 70s cinema, to many film lovers a lost Eden after which movies were wrecked by merch and franchises.

The truth is trickier. The Godfather itself was nothing if not a slab of blockbuster, a pricey adaptation of Mario Puzo’s salacious bestseller. Now, we would call it an event movie: Jaws before Jaws. Then, it towered over the box office. And if Star Wars is blamed for Hollywood “sequelitis”, The Godfather II gave it the bug beforehand. Coppola also sold the studios on a particular profile of director: young, movie-obsessed, frantic with big ideas. Steven Spielberg, say, or Coppola’s business partner George Lucas. Cue most of multiplex cinema history.

There are the endless mob movies, of course. But more potent than mere weight of numbers is the scale of influence exerted by just one dynasty. Like a remarried parent, The Godfather has the original offspring, II and III. Then it has more: Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Scorsese’s masterwork is the coked-out angry son, upending Dad’s view from the top. The onward connection to David Chase’s Tony Soprano meant Coppola helped change not just film but TV, too. And like Tony, the show spent much of its time unpicking its inheritance. Not least the lot of Italian-Americans.

The mass appeal of Puzo’s novel lay in an illicit glimpse of a hidden culture. But with Coppola, something loving was at work as well. The immigrant experience of untold millions arrived from Sicily or Abruzzo was spotlit at last. A byproduct of the hubbub around the first two Godfathers was that a group long kept at America’s margins finally got membership. It doesn’t feel coincidental that, with only rare exceptions, such as James Caan and Andy Garcia, Coppola insisted that Italian-Americans be played by Italian-Americans. The understanding of identity and representation was years ahead of its time.

It was also double-edged. By the time the credits rolled on The Godfather II, the tropes were fixed. A whole diaspora was tied to crime and murder. Your horse was unsafe with Italian-Americans. But double edges always were the deal with The Godfather. Coppola’s old-world vision was released to an America convulsed by Vietnam, economic turmoil, racial tension and a sense of lost order. The past filled cinemas and a pining for tradition seeped into the world beyond. Among the things the film was about, one was patriarchy: power in the hands of one white man. Women stayed marginal. The Godfather helped put nostalgia in the middle of modern life. And when politics felt useless, it offered Don Corleone.

Brian Cox as a Corleone-like patriarch in Succession.
Don deal … Brian Cox as a Corleone-like patriarch in Succession. Photograph: HBO

He was not refused. And eventually, politicians caught up. Boris Johnson always names the climactic bloodbath of The Godfather as his favourite film scene. Just this January, a journalist reported him quoting the movie at a hapless photographer, Marlon Brando impersonation and all. Naturally, a joke is made of it. Still, the similarity with his style of government is obvious: a circle of cut-throats and suck-ups, rule by threat and favour. As ever, he echoes Donald Trump, whose whole shtick is Corleone cosplay. (“Classics,” Trump says of the first two films.) And then there is Vladimir Putin, his Russia long called the definitive “mafia state”. A Putin of a different era met Coppola over tea at the Kremlin in 2005. He namechecked The Godfather. Ukraine is sadder than any movie, but to watch the three films now is also to see the poisoned result of when killers dream of legacy.

In the course of the first film, Corleone tells Al Pacino’s Michael he had hoped his son would become a politician. Instead, politics became The Godfather. We are ruled by men who do impressions of the Don. And kissing the ring crosses party lines. The first two films are also the favourites of Barack Obama. But politicians’ weakness for attention would make them poor mafiosi. A Cosa Nostra relies on silence: omertà.

Invisible power thrives elsewhere. Because another literal subject of The Godfather is capitalism; Coppola said it was his biggest theme. There, omertà remains the watchword. How many of us could identify the heads of the companies whose products we buy? How much corporate skulduggery remains out of sight? And if the first lesson of The Godfather is trust no one, the second is that each generation ends up living the life of the one before. So it has proved. Fifty years after Don Corleone, the mafia is a husk; America itself is coming undone. But the birthright of The Godfather keeps being handed down. Now as then, our world is strictly business.

The Godfather and Godfather II rereleases are in cinemas now.

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