Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"I Believe in America": Godfather Analysis Part I

Go to introduction.

That is the line that opens the film over a black frame before a fade in on a close-up of Bonasera. That line sets the tone for the rest of the film and possibly the entire trilogy. In many ways, the film is a celebration of the idea of America and the American dream: an immigrant family settles in New York and builds itself up from having nothing to having everything. America, the land of opportunity, has been very good to the Corleone family.

The opening shot is of a minor character in the film, but the position he’s in and the request he makes of Don Corleone is emblematic of what the film has to say about justice – the justice that the Corleone family deals in versus American justice of the legal system. The camera slowly pulls back from Bonasera as he tells a tale of how he has tried to live his life like an American. He notes he’s made his fortune in America and that he raises his daughter “in the American fashion.” He goes on to tell how his daughter was attacked by American boys. They savagely beat her, breaking her jaw. She is now in the hospital. Bonasera attempted to avail himself of the lawful justice system, but the judge let the boys off with a suspended sentence. The America he loves let him down, abandoned him at his most desperate hour. Bonasera wants revenge. As he speaks, the camera finally reveals the back of Don Corleone’s head. As the shot began, Bonasera’s image filled the screen. By the end he is a small figure in the background, dwarfed by both Corleone and his massive desk, shrouded in the darkness of this office where under-handed deals are made and the life and death fates of many are decided.
The opening shot of the film gives us Bonasera, his features cast in shadow.
A long and slow pullback reveals the smallness of Bonasera compared to Corleone in the foreground and his massive desk between them.
It takes until the third shot in the film and fully 3 minutes to get to this establishing shot revealing the room and who is in it.
The third shot of the film reveals Sonny and Tom in the room, although we don’t yet know who they are. All the men are dressed in tuxedos, although we don’t yet know why. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to have the boys killed, but Corleone insists that is not proper justice because his daughter is still alive. Then Bonasera unwittingly insults the Don by offering money. Don Corleone is visibly disappointed:

DON CORLEONE: Bonasera. Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they will fear you.
"And then they will fear you." Corleone reveals the full weight of his power to Bonasera.
This speech begins to reveal the weight and power of Don Corleone. Bonasera accepts his friendship and calls him “Godfather.” Don Corleone is obviously pleased now and tells Bonasera that one day (possibly) he will come to ask for a favor in exchange, but until that day this is a simple gift on his daughter’s wedding day. The reason for the tuxedos is thus revealed. Bonasera leaves the office and Corleone tells Tom:

DON CORLEONE: Give this to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people that aren’t going to be carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers in spite of what this undertaker says.

This is another line that resonates throughout the film (and the series). Don Corleone doesn’t see his family as murderers. They are businessmen – a mantra that will be repeated in several forms throughout the film as a means of justifying to themselves what they do to other people.

Go to Part II: "No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter's wedding day."

1 comment:

  1. Insightful analysis. I will add a word about Brando's sensational performance. Before we see his face, before he makes a sound, we see from his position, his posture, and his gestures that he is "the man," radiating power, in complete control, the ultimate authority figure. A transformation occurs when we first see Brando's face. Brando had a charisma and a screen presence like no other, even despite the makeup (which isn't up to today's standard). The Don's contempt for Bonasera is palatable, but he will give Bonasera an opportunity to redeem himself. Although he has precious little onscreen time, Brando played an emormous role in Coppola's tansformation of good pulp fiction in an artistic masterpiece.