I finally watched The Godfather (1972), all three hours of it. One of my motivations was the discussion over at Man 0f Roma in which I participated. As I watched, I couldn’t help comparing it to Mafioso (1962), a truly marvelous film. Now that I’ve seen The Godfather, the only thing I want to do is read the Mad Magazine satire of it.
I’m sure that Copolla knew Mafioso well, and scores of film noir movies too. There seem to be many parallel elements, perhaps homages, perhaps simple allusions, perhaps just coincidence. To me, The Godfather was, first of all, boring, and second, extremely pretentious. It cements Coppola’s reputation in my mind as a vastly overrated guy who loves movies and is really good with a camera. If only he’d left the idea part to somebody else. (Maybe one day I’ll make myself watch again Apocalypse Now.)
Both films have a returning son. Michael Corleone returns from WWII, in uniform, as a hero, and with a blonde New England love in tow. (I have to be honest: Dianne Keaton always evokes in me the sensation of hearing fingernails scratching a blackboard.) He tells her about his family – doesn’t seem to phase her, although she’s taken aback a little bit. He doesn’t want to be part of “the family business,” he says. Then his father, Marlon Brando, in a role I just couldn’t take seriously – but then, perhaps, I’ve seen too many caricatures over the years – is gunned down. It’s as if Michael’s genetic base takes over, and he acts as if he’s been a mafia hit man his entire life. The transition is instantaneous. Or was he like that before? In which case, his re-entry to the “business” is robbed of all the dramatic tension it’s supposed to have.
After he kills the guys responsible for his father’s shooting, he is sent to Sicily for a prolonged stay, away from the gang war that ensues. There, he embarks on a Odyssean idyll (he should be in NYC with the guys), traipsing about the country with his faithful protectors, elegantly courting a local beauty, discovering the mysteries of his violent Sicilian roots. “Where are all the men?” he asks during a visit to his ancestral hill town. “All dead in vendettas – here are their memorial plaques.”
We see him happily strolling away from the camera, down a country road, with his love, followed and supervised by her family, a few paces behind. (Later, we will see him walking down a New England street, towards the camera, with no attendants, talking to his WASP-love object, convincing her to marry him. There are other such oppositions. For instance, on his wedding night, his modest, virtuous wife drops her negligee revealing her nubile breasts before they embrace. Michael’s hothead brother, constantly unfaithful, consorts with sluts who are always shown having sex fully clothed, or slopping about in similar lingerie, loosely in place. The natural, the earthy vs. the corrupt and urban, yeah, yeah, yeah…) After a passionate wedding night and some happy days, the violence of America catches up with him, and his wife dies in a car bomb meant for him. (Is this a direct quote from the Big Heat? In that movie, the blonde, loving wife of the crusading detective is killed in the same accidental way. The actress in that movie was Marlon Brando’s sister! Surely, not another accident?)
Oh Italy! Oh Sicily! So dark, so tragic and violent, yet so beautiful! Oooooh! Indeed.
In Mafioso, Antonio returns to his home town after years away in Milan, where he has found success as an industrial engineer. He is a modern Italian; rational, super-precise, perfectly in tune with the capitalistic economic miracle lifting Italy out of its post-war impoverishment, except for the South, of course. The film begins as a comedy, playing on the prejudices of the the northern Italians about their uncivilized peasant cousins in the south, a farcial clash of manners.
Antonio brings his wife – a beautiful northerner, light and blonde – and two pretty daughters to meet his family for the first time. She offends them first by smoking, and then by not eating ravenously at the banquet they prepare. After a while, she grows to like the place, and the family warms to her. She enjoys the sun, the scenery, the food, the intense and comforting embrace of family, kin, community.
On a walk through the town on the way to pay homage to the local Don, Antonio’s wife asks innocently, “What are all those plaques?” Embarrassed, Antonio tells her they are memorials to dead men. They pass a wake – “How did he die?” “Two bullets!” He hurries his family away – it’s funny, but ominous. They stop for ice cream with some old school chums of his. “Here comes so-and-so, don’t speak to him!” Antonio obeys, but his wife cannot understand why he shuns an old classmate, not understanding that he is now a marked man.
Unlike Kay, in The Godfather, who sees what’s going on and just seems to accept it, or asks to be happily lied to, Antonio’s wife is kept truly in the dark. Antonio is the one who is filled with anxiety about the truth – he doesn’t want her to know. The truth of the mafia is like a growing dark, horrific cloud, gradually moving over the landscape.
Antonio finally is given an offer he cannot refuse – he must perform a hit for the Don. He is transported to America to carry it out, after a brief, exhilarating sight-seeing drive through New York City. The Old World brings its filth to the new, in contrast to The Godfather. He returns to Italy, his wife and everyone none-the wiser, thinking he’s been on a hunting trip to the country. He is now trapped in a horrific nightmare existence, a murder on his conscience, unable to tell anyone, especially those he loves, the truth. And who knows when he may be asked again to perform a “little service for” them?
I have never seen any other movie like Mafioso. Disturbing, funny, horrific. I regret the three hours I spent watching The Godfather, a “soap opera for guys,” as one colleague, who likes it, dubbed it.