“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” – Francis Ford Coppola
American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is celebrated around the world for his masterpieces such as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather series and more. He is the recipient of numerous accolades, including five Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or, making Coppola one of only eight filmmakers to have won that award twice. Coppola also received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for a body of work which reflects “a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
Based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 novel of the same name, many dismissed The Godfather as ‘just another mafia flick’ when they first heard about it, but everything changed when audiences witnessed Coppola’s epic storytelling about American crime and the complicated issues it explored. Since then, it has become the definitive work of the genre and the yardstick against which every other crime film is measured (often unfavourably).
The film revolves around the Corleone crime family, headed by the patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and shows how one of his sons (Al Pacino) rises to the occasion and becomes a ruthless Mafia boss himself. The film won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Puzo and Coppola) and is correctly regarded as one of the most influential films of all time.
Despite its enormous popularity and its undisputed status as a classic, it is still a little baffling to figure out how The Godfather became a must-watch for families during Christmas. Of course, the obvious reason is because of the film’s focus on the importance of family. Then again, we are talking about two different kinds of families here, but the holiday season always has an underlying sense of fantasy. The Godfather makes us all wonder what it would be like to be a part of a crime family like the Corleones while we subconsciously dread returning to the monotony of our normal routines after the holidays are over.
In an interview, Coppola explained, “The Mafia was romanticised in the book. And I was filming that book. To do a film about my real opinion of the Mafia would be another thing altogether. But it’s a mistake to think I was making a film about the Mafia. Godfather Part I is a romance about a king with three sons. It’s a film about power.”
If we investigate the religious symbolism in the film, the title itself is directly linked to questions of faith and spirituality. The Godfather is a figure who is intrinsically associated with Christian ideas of original sin and baptism, the first of which becomes a central focus of Coppola’s artistic vision. Through violence and crime, The Godfather presents a complex framework where your family has the power to heal you as well as make you “sleep with the fishes” in a matter of seconds. In this constant oscillation between love and fear, we find the meaning of loyalty as well as a portrait of the troubled cultural history of America.
To be fair, The Godfather is a film which retains its power no matter what time of the year it is watched. However, viewing it with family during the holiday season has been codified into a tradition now and rightly so. Calling it just a Christmas film is an extremely reductive statement, but like most good works of the genre, The Godfather makes us question what our priorities are and urges us to revaluate our own actions as we are carried along with the poetic narrative.
The omnipresent themes of loss and death force us to reflect on the troubles of the past year while also reminding us to appreciate what we have because, at the end of the day, you’re probably better off not being a part of a crime syndicate.