Sunday, March 2, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: The Godfather

The Story: It's important to get to a movie early enough--it's not just good manners to the folks who did plan ahead to see the entire show--because sometimes the most important part of the movie--the theme, the thesis statement--is tied up in the first few minutes of the film. You miss that, you might as well miss the whole thing.

Such a movie is Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.* There are speeches throughout the thing where the characters justify the things they do and explain their paths. But the opening is significantly powerful and all-encompassing. Its first few minutes, with a character that is, in the scheme of things, unimportant, sets up an entire world. The world of La Cosa Nostra doesn't operate like the real world, but it does operate like a mad-house magnified version of the Corporate World. Make a mistake and it's not your job--it goes a step further--into your grave, or an anonymous cornerstone. The fiefdom of The Godfather with its favors, its fealty and its family ties has rules of honor and service far tighter than a mere contract can bestow, a necessity for order when working to bend rules and subvert honesty. In the topsy-turvy underworld The Godfather demands loyalty, friendship and respect from the very men who do not respect the ways or the rules of the rest of the world. And for those intangibles he will use his sway to make the world bend to your needs. In the first few minutes of The Godfather a desperate man—pointedly and ironically, an undertaker**—asks of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to re-align his immigrant's dream of a perfect life in America, which has now been threatened, for both his family and his soul. He has tread the righteous path up until now, but it has failed him, and in desperation he turns to the one man he had hoped to avoid for fear of losing that dream. He must now go to the devil to beat the devil, as Faith is no longer enough.

The Godfather starts with a title card over a mournful peasant tune played on a lone trumpet, and in the pitch blackness, a solo voice emerges...

Bonasera: I believe in America.
Bonasera: America’s made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family.
Bonasera: She found a boyfriend—not an Italian. She went to the movies with him. She stayed out late. I didn’t protest.
Bonasera: Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey, and then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor.
Bonasera: So they beat an animal.
Bonasera: When I went to the hospital, her nose was broken. Her jaw was shattered--held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain. But I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light of my life.
Bonasera: Beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again. Sorry. Sorry.
(Bonasera breaks down, and the Don signals to an unseen man in the room to bring him a drink, which he gratefully takes)
Bonasera: I went to the police—like a good American. These boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison, and suspend the sentence.
Bonasera: Suspend the sentence?! They went free that very day. I stood in the court-room like a fool...
Bonasera:...and these two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”
Corleone: Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?*
Bonasera: What do you want of me?
Bonasera: Tell me anything, but do what I beg you to do.
Corleone: What is that?
(Bonasera gets up, and whispers in the Don's ear. The Don sits back)
Corleone: That I cannot do.
(There are two other men in the room. The Don's son, Sonny (James Caan) and The Don's legal adviser, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
Bonasera: I’ll give you anything you ask.
Corleone: We’ve known each other many years, but this the first time you ever came to me for council or for help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee. Even though my wife is god-mother to your only child.
Corleone: But let’s be frank. You never wanted my were afraid to be in my debt.
Bonasera: I didn’t want to get into trouble.
Corleone: I understand. You found paradise in America. You had a good trade, made a good living, the police protected you and there were courts of law. But, you come to me and you say “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me “Godfather.” Instead you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to commit murder...for money.
Bonasera: I ask you for justice.
Corleone: That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
Bonasera: Make them suffer, she suffers. How much shall I pay you?
(Corleone looks at Bonasera with disgust, and gets up from his desk, the others in the room shift nervously)
Corleone: Bonasera...Bonasera...What did I ever do to make you treat my so disrespectfully. If you’d come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day.
Corleone: And if a honest man like yourself should make enemies, they would become my enemies...
Corleone: And then they will fear you.
Bonasera: Be my friend?....
(Corleone shrugs in indifference, and Bonasera bends low, takes the Don's hand and kisses it)
Corleone: Good.
Corleone: Some day...and that day may never come...
Corleone: I will ask you to perform a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.
Bonasera: Grazie
Corleone: Prego.
(Bonasera leaves the room, the Don closes the door.)
Corleone(to Hagen): Uh...give this to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people that aren’t going to be carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers, despite what this undertaker says.

Words by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather is available in many different iterations on DVD and Blu-Ray on Paramount Home Video.

* There are many hands present in the creation of The Godfather but without Coppola at the helm it would have been a completely different movie: no Brando, no Pacino, no period structure, and the style of shooting would have been completely different. The movie bears a lot of Coppola's personal stamp, despite the fact that he basically took the film on as a job to pay off his debts.

** "Bonasera" is played by Salvatore Corsitto, a "novice" actor, who showed up at an open casting session. His undertaker feels real, and his performance at the opening of the film gives it an emotional weight that evokes empathy--he gains the sympathy of the audience from the way his monologue is played, and that sympathy is a gateway to the plight of the immigrant in America, and an argument for the subsequent reliance on "social clubs" and "secret societies" to gain a modicum of power in this country. Marlon Brando called it the best performance in the movie. Considering the talent involved in The Godfather--Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Keaton, Cazale, Hayden, Marley, Conte, Castellano, Brando himself...that's a tremendous compliment. But it's true. Perhaps because of the familiarity of his face and voice, or for the fact that he wasn't a "professional" actor--or the residuals from this one movie and its many versions--Corsitto has only appeared in one other film...on television.

*** When Coppola cut The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II into a linear "Novel for Television" for NBC—which subsequently became known in video release as The Godfather Saga—he re-looped this line with Robert De Niro's voice as the Don.  Not a very good match, and alarming when someone knows the movie backwards and forwards.  Ya know, folks are all over George Lucas about refining his movies, but nobody ever goes after Coppola, or Ridley Scott, or Oliver Stone.  Nobody.

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