Roger Ebert once wrote that part of the brilliance of The Godfather was its portrayal of the criminal organization in a non-negative light. He cites the film as being painted from the inside out, where “we tend to identify with Don Corleone’s family not because we dig gang wars, but because we have been with them from the beginning, watching them wait for battle.”
That is where the crux of The Godfather lies…it’s very much in the waiting, in the building. It’s not a film driven by large explosions and big scenes. Those big scenes are used sparingly in the nearly three hour runtime. But it makes use of all 175 minutes of time, and that makes the big scenes all the more effective. The moment when Michael pulls the trigger, killing Virgil The Turk Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey is all the more effective from the tense buildup as the camera tightens in a Michael. When Sonny’s rage gets the best of him and he’s cornered and almost literally filled with lead. And finally, the climactic Baptism Scene is a study in contrast as Michael simultaneously renounces sin at his Godson’s Baptism while having all of his enemies systematically killed.
Part II picks up and shows Michael becoming even darker, and the attempt on his life early in the film mirrors the attempt on his father’s life early in the first film. As Michael withdraw deeper into maintaining his criminal empire, he further and further distances himself from his wife. Near the end of the film, he shuts the door on her after she has dropped his children off to him, symbolically shutting her out of his life entirely. This mirrors the very end of Part I where the door shuts and closes her out of his business life.
Part II tells two stories. As Michael continues to grow his criminal empire, expanding from New York and Las Vegas, he himself begins to see his life in danger from his rivals and enemies. Interwoven among this story is the story of young Vito Corleone, an immigrant from Italy as he begins and grows his criminal empire from scratch.
Both of these films are incredibly character driven, and even while Part I focuses on Vito, the story is really about Michael. And while Part II shows young Vito growing his empire, it is showing exactly what it is that Michael is going so far and working so hard to protect.
The film closes on two quiet reflective moments. In a flashback, as the family prepares for Vito Corleone’s birthday, Michael announces to his family that he has enlisted in the Marines, coming full circle to his return from the Marines at the start of Part I. His brother Sonny is angry, his surrogate brother Tom is confused, and his other brother Fredo, is the only one who voices any support: all of this shown just after years in the future Michael has had Fredo executed.
Flashing back to the present, Michael sits in his family compound, quietly reflective as the film fades to black.
These are true masterpieces of filmmaking.