With Christmas coming up, we all tend to go back to the movies that we love and find comfort in. Whether it is Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually or When Harry Met Sally, one thing is certain: the holiday season is a time when we especially want to feel comfortable with the world around us. Each one of us has their own safety blanket. Each one of us has, some way or another, their own favorite teddy bear.
Before sitting down to write this entry, I kept thinking to myself, what is the one movie that I consider an essential Christmas movie? What is the one movie that makes me feel warm inside? And although, sure, it sounds like a pretty odd choice, all things considered, my answer is: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather.
The greatness of Coppola’s groundbreaking epic released in 1972, that went on to become one of the biggest and most successful sagas in cinema history, has been known for quite some time now. It’s regarded as one of of the main cornerstones of modern cinema, with critics still raving about it and directors still trying to imitate it almost 50 years after its release. Its head-on depiction of violence, its fierce attitude and the rule-breaking process behind it is what, among many other things, has turned Puzo’s book into a generational cinematic feast.
Thus, in order to mix things up and keep the holiday spirit alive and well, today I want to look at how most of the qualities we associate with Christmas movies manifest themselves in The Godfather.
It all comes down to family. At the end of the day, Christmas movies are more often than not about avoiding loneliness, and finding meaning and solace in being around other people. There is often pressure involved, as characters struggle to reunite with their friends and relatives, sometimes even refusing to sit at the same table, or in the case of Home Alone, initially wanting nothing but a good time away from a bunch of stressed out, screaming, preoccupied adults and teenagers.
In The Godfather, like in any other Coppola movie, the dominating theme is that of family. Family that can assume both the form of a vicious octopus whose tentacles find their away around your throat and ultimately choke you to death, and that of a protective, loving unit that shields its members from the dangers of the outside world. Unlike its far more cynical sequels, The Godfather treats family like a fleeting dream rather than a twisted nightmare.
Similarly to It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist fully realizes the importance of his own existence and his family’s only when confronted by the prospect of death, Coppola’s first gangster film works toward the realization that the only thing that can alleviate our passing is family. When Tom Hagen, out busy Christmas-shopping in the city, is shoved into a car and held at gun-point by Sollozzo and his men, it is the comforting thought of Hagen’s family eventually protecting him from his kidnappers, that makes him appreciate the idea of not ending up alone on a snowy, Christmas night somewhere on the outskirts of Brooklyn with a bullet in his head.
In particular, it is the scene involving the assassination attempt on Don Corleone that makes me think most about the power that the concept of family holds over the film’s characters. Coppola directs the scene very quietly, almost with an intimate cruelty as the impending doom of what eventually will follow this incident (Michael becoming a murderer and running away to Sicily, the war of the Five Families, the Corleones momentarily reaffirming their strength only to see it all crumble…) hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.
With its simple set-up; Don Corleone, old and fragile, picking up some oranges from the local shop, accompanied by his son, Fredo; the scene builds up a remarkable contrast between the intimate action of a very powerful man doing something as basic and routinely as buying fruit and the loud, increasingly faster sound of the assassins’ approaching footsteps. And once the roar of the guns being fired right into Don Corleone’s back, echoing across the street ends, we are left with something even more intimate: the moment when the son realizes he wasn’t able to save his father, reaching out in shame, head in his hands crying, ”Papa, Papa!”
It is the culmination of violence resulting in a moment of emotional fragility that reminds me of James Stewart’s protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life helplessly watching on as the town grieves his disappearance, wishing he could have done something to prevent all this unnecessary pain.
And like in any proper Christmas movie, love and romance are also prominent themes in The Godfather. Whereas in Love Actually and The Holiday, the conclusion that love is something you just can’t run away from is pretty straightforward in its presentation, The Godfather uses a similar conclusion but to different effect. ”Cherish it while you have it” or ”Don’t hesitate. Just go for it!” is often the underlining message in most Christmas movies.
In The Godfather this same message is put forth along with the painful consequences. There is an impending OR… that gives the movie that tension that we feel once Kay and Michael are having dinner, half-knowing that their lives are about to change forever. ”Cherish it while you have it OR you’ll end up becoming strangers to each other for the rest of your lives.” The two of them sit across from each other, barely touching their food, exchanging glances, running way from each other without knowing it. The energy the scene possesses lies in our feeling of unease that stems from our protagonists’ uncertain fate. Far from the mindless, teenager-like naivety and happiness that Kay and Michael displayed in the opening wedding sequence, here they closely resemble a much older couple, doomed from the get-go, slowly growing used to the unspoken truths that separate them.
Once Michael returns from two years of exile in Sicily, the thought of the doomed relationship turns into reality. And despite their efforts to disguise pain as duty, regret as responsibility and lies as truth, Michael and Kay’s bond was gone the night they decided not look each other in the eyes from across the table. It is, in other words, the tragic outcome of the What if question that so many Christmas movies like to pose, but are too afraid to answer.
Coppola’s Godfather explores themes of family and love in a way that, ultimately, it feels more violent to let somebody down or close a door in someone’s face, than to merely strangle somebody or drive them out of town and shoot them in the back of the head.
The explicitly violent sequences that shocked audiences at the time, including Luca Brasi being put to sleep with the fishes or Sonny getting riddled with machine-gun fire, pale in comparison to the emotionally violent outbursts of Don Corleone breaking down in tears, muttering over Sonny’s corpse, ”Look how they massacred my boy,” or Michael harshly telling Fredo, ”Don’t ever take sides against the family.” What makes these out-spoken confessions so powerful is the sense of community and family history that these carefully constructed sentences emanate so brilliantly. When Tessio is being sent for and accepts his long-sealed fate without blinking an eye, it hurts because we saw him be part of the family. We saw him eat Clemenza’s meatballs, exchange jokes with Sonny and Tom, and it is the betrayal on both sides that ultimately undercuts the theme of family that had been so convincingly sold to us – the audience.
And while The Godfather has been called out numerously for excessively romanticizing the Cosa Nostra, it is the emotionally violent way it separates itself from its underlining themes that makes it such an honest, heartbreaking portrayal of our society. With its fable-like quality, powerful imagery and masterful storytelling The Godfather sooths our senses, luring us into a world of ancient traditions and well-established values that resonate across all living rooms and TV sets. Like all great Christmas movies, it places a mirror in front of us, and asks – What would you do? What matters to you?