The Godfather is one of the few films in which I personally did not find any significant weakness even after many viewings. From the direction, to the acting, to the storyline, to the score, The Godfather has the word classic written all over, and it really is not much of a surprise that it is now considered by many one of the top five movies of all time. Perhaps when it comes to cinematic techniques The Godfather has not been as revolutionary as Citizen Kane, but its influence on motion pictures is comparable. Rarely a movie has defined or re-defined a genre as much as this one did for "gangster movies", but its influence goes well beyond that.
The Godfather's influence has been so big through the years that elements of it can be found in virtually every "organized crime film" nowadays; almost every comedy featuring a gangster in the last few years has spoofed something in The Godfather. The Italian-American old mobster a-la Don Vito Corleone has become one of the most established figures in the public's imagination.
But to say that The Godfather is simply "influential" is to diminish its true qualities, and so is to describe it simply as "a movie about gangsters". The Mafia is certainly the main focus the story revolves around (despite the fact that the word is never mentioned), but although the movie never tries to forcedly insert separate subjects it contains an amount of psychological and social subtexts that cannot be overlooked. Considerations on how the social environments changes us, on how moral values appear different from different point of views, on how violence can destroy a human soul, and on how power can corrupt an individual are deeply blended into a story that stays practically always true to complete realism, and the result is a picture of astonishing efficacy and believability.
As good as the direction and the story are, it would be unfair not to consider the major role that the actors' performances had in the cinematic triumph that was The Godfather. Praised by many as the best cast to ever appear in an American movie, all the cast in The Godfather succeeds in portraying complex, three-dimensional characters without ever making a slip. The exceptional portrayals of Don Vito and Michael Corleone respectively by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, the performances by Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton as Tom Hagen, Santino Corleone and Kay Adams, the ruthless Virgil Sollozzo played by Al Lettieri -- as well as more than a few other roles -- are all perfect for the movie, and they all succeed in making us believe these are real people, not just actors. We are not watching a central character and a bunch of incomplete figures that revolve around him: although Michael Corleone is the character that gets the most screen time, everybody is the center of this world his own way. The movie makes it possible for the viewers to identify with different characters and to observe how their personality and story fits in, and it does it much more effectively than many bloated multiple-storyline movies that came out in the last few years.
The movie opens on the wedding of Don Vito Corleone's daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). Don Corleone is a powerful man, and it was not without the use of violence that he achieved this position during the course of his life. The wedding scene gives a perfect setting of where and how the Don's power extends; from the regular worker in a neighborhood, to the immensely popular singer, to the friends in politics and right to the ruthless killer, Don Corleone has links to people ready to ask him favors and to pay him back. Some are trustworthy, some are not, but thanks to his intelligence and intuit the Don can almost always distinguish the two.
However, this is 1946, times are changing, and to many of the younger people working in the crime business, Don Corleone's ideas are becoming obsolete. The Don believes that the new trend in the business, narcotics, is too dangerous and the families dealing with it would eventually end up self-destroying; while his family had deals in alcohol and gambling for a long time, part of the Government and law enforcement was ready to close one eye. Drugs are another thing.
To this day, Don Corleone was able to keep things together while maintaining his economic and political power, but things will brutally change when a powerful drug dealer name Sollozzo enters the picture. The refusal of Don Corleone to cooperate with Sollozzo, and a weakness immediately spotted by the latter, will ignite a war that will cost many lives, and that will see Michael Corleone, Vito's younger son and the one who never wanted to take part in the family business, lose his "innocence" and transform into a gangster as ruthless as the people he initially stood up against.
I purposely decided not to spoil much about the plot because I believe that the film is perfectly enjoyed without knowing anything in advance, and -- believe it or not -- there are still quite a lot of people who have never seen this movie. There are multiple scenes that manage to create an incredible tension, various twists, and although like any other masterpiece The Godfather can be watched knowing the whole story beforehand and still be a phenomenal experience, I believe it is always a pleasure to see it for the first time and enjoy its multiple climaxes. Besides, to outline such complicated characters and such an emotionally intense story in a short review like this one would be inadmissible.
There has been much speculation on how the events in The Godfather novel written by Mario Puzo, the book the film is based on, could be an expose of true facts. Many believe that the character of Johnny Fontane , for instance, was based on Frank Sinatra's real life, and many of the other characters were modeled after real people. I won't go into that: frankly, I
have no idea whether these voices are reliable, although the Frank Sinatra reference seems obviously quite believable.
The cinematography of The Godfather is dark and tasteful, and colors are used perfectly to give a true feel of the era it is set in. There is a fair amount of violence, though rarely gratuitous.
The Godfather certainly doesn't need my recommendation. The film is universally considered one of the best of all time, and the performances by Pacino and Brando alone is the stuff of legends.