Last week, the decennial Sight & Sound poll was released to various levels of interest. For the most part, the headlines focussed on Citizen Kane not being n.o.1 for the first time in over fifty years. But personally, what interested me most was The Godfather failing to even make the critical top 10 (though remaining high-placed in the filmmakers’ rankings). This excites me. A crack has been created in a cinematic edifice.
See, The Godfather is one of those rare films (like Citizen Kane or The Exorcist) that is known for being ‘A Masterpiece’. Not in the sense of it being thought generally to be good, like, say, The Artist or The King’s Speech. It’s more than that. This is a film that has become synonymous with cinematic quality. And as such, it really isn’t talked about that much. The Godfather is good. Everyone knows this. Why even bother analysing it?
Well, because films exist to be talked about, and because – at most – the word ‘Masterpiece’ only tells us that a film succeeds at being what it wants to be. With that in mind The Godfather succeeds is beyond question, however, the conversation about the relevance of what it achieves is one we don’t often have. In my opinion, the result of the Sight & Sound poll shows we need to. It suggests that for the professional consumers, The Godfather’s success no longer resonates as powerfully as it once did. And I think that has a lot to do with how modern culture approaches the nature of evil.
The Godfather is an unrelentingly moody and intense film. The lethargy of the pacing and music, the fact that the characters speak exclusively between the lines and the reservation of violence to sharp, bitesize morsels – all this makes the film a wearing, even exhausting affair. The Godfather possesses a grave, dramatic weight that never, ever lets up. It’s as if Coppola one day experienced a British summer, and then turned it into a movie. Watching The Godfather is like staring into a sky filled, horizon to horizon, with a wall of grey cloud. It’s as if your soul is being overcast.
Which is about as good a definition of ‘not fun’ I can think of. A film that makes you feel like your insides are being drizzled on does not win over an audience easily. But this dulling, oppressive atmosphere is necessary, because it provides the perfect fit for The Godfather’s principal theme.
The loss of humanity.
At the beginning, the people of The Godfather do appear to have some capacity for the expression of positive emotion. There’s the affection between Michael and Kay, Connie and Carlo’s newlywed delight, the dancing and singing, and Luca Brasi’s clumsy, yet sincere, loyalty. But this is the most humanity we ever see in one place during the film, and even then, we the audience are fully aware that the joy is only skin deep. We just watched the Don order two teenagers beaten. We see Sonny Corleone commit adultery in the middle of a wedding, and know that his wife knows what he is doing. We see the FBI sniffing around the guests’ cars. And we are introduced to this darker side first.
From then on, emotion bleeds out of The Godfather. Sonny’s raging passion leads him to ruin. Michael’s initial care for his father leads him to commit cold-blooded murder, and he becomes ever colder as the film progresses, culminating in the ultimate lie he tells Kay. Even Michael’s love for Apollonia is chilly, their attraction summarised in the cool magnetism of a joined gaze rather than sweeping passion. The cultural formality of the courting only adds to the effect. Carlo and Connie’s marriage descends into an emotionally-ruinous hell. And what’s more the moment we see Don Corleone relax into being a surprisingly playful human being, next thing we know, he’s dead. That’s the lesson of The Godfather. Emotions lead to ruin. They are weaknesses that can be exploited, and in this world, success demands the sacrifice of humanity.
Well, by the end of The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s is gone. He is a husk of a person: an emotionless, casual murderer without malice or enthusiasm. In other words, the kind of villain the culture at large does not favour.
We much prefer The Joker.
Or Voldemort. Or Anton Chigurh. Or Saruman. We like Hans Gruber and Gollum. We like our evil repellent, sure. We still want the villains to lose. But more importantly, they have to lose in a thrilling fashion. We like our evil grand, dramatic and monstrous. We want to see villains stand like the dark reflections of gods. We would rather not have evil be transformed into something casual. Something mundane, conducted not in passion, but in cool calculation. We prefer to see evil as the pursuit of those who take sick delight in the inflicting of horrors: we’d rather not see it as the everyday business of those who want to stay ahead in life.
I believe this is why The Godfather is losing favour. Not because it has suddenly become a worse movie over the years. We just no longer connect so readily with its brutal, mundane pessimism.