Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather always gets included in many critics’ top 100 best films list. It is hard to argue against its inclusion in a list that talks about the greatest achievements in cinematic history. It is not a good idea to ignore this film, because writers, journalists, and even bloggers use the movie’s captivating scenes and dialogue to explain aspects of everyday life. At first glance, the films popularity and box office success can be attributed to its intriguing plot, however, a closer examination reveals the clever use of mise-en-scène and film score to create a realistic portrayal of how Italian immigrants attempted to survive, thrive, and succeed in a foreign land.
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Coppola’s masterpiece creates a profound effect in the hearts and minds of moviegoers all over the world. One can argue that The Godfather has this kind of impact because of two critical factors. First, hundreds of millions of people all over the planet nurture a longing to have a glimpse of the United States of America. Roughly the same number of daydreamers also imagined themselves living in a land of opportunities.
The second factor is linked to the universally understood emotion felt by underdogs and marginalized members of society. Therefore, the film was not an action-packed bonanza typical of Hollywood action movies (The Godfather). Even though the Italian-American crime syndicate – better known as the American mafia – figured prominently in the movie, the film attempted to show the issues and the life stories beyond the life of crime. The end goal was not to glorify the criminal underworld, in fact there was a consistent effort to magnify its faults, but at the same time, to seek understanding from the audience, because of the circumstances that compelled the characters to establish a shadow government that operated behind the scenes.
The film’s director and producer wanted to show the plight of the Italian immigrants who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They also wanted to show the emergence of the most feared criminal organization in US soil through the hardscrabble existence of the immigrants. Thus, they need to provide an accurate portrayal of that particular ethnic background and lifestyle.
According to the author of a book about film scores, this movie was “a sensitive, as well as detailed look at an entire segment of American life vis-a-vis the Italian Diaspora by portraying two concurrent cultures over the course of most of the twentieth century” (Sciannameo 15). It must be made clear that the film’s focus was not on the conventional understanding of Italian culture, but the spotlight’s on a sub-culture that emanated from a province in Italy called Sicily. It is interesting to note that the film’s director and producer were able to accomplish the said goals in the first thirty minutes of the film through the expert use of sound and mise-en-scène
The Power of Music
Even before the first image was revealed on the silver screen, the haunting music of Nino Rota was the first stimulus that reach the moviegoer’s brain. The decision to use that kind of music and to introduce it in the beginning of the movie was Coppola’s masterstroke. The music’s Italian flavor was unmistakable. However, it was not the elitist type of music that Italian operas are known for, because it is the type of film score that was readily accessible by ordinary patrons.
Italian-Americans watching the film easily recognize the cultural significance of Nino Rota’s music. They are transported back to a faraway land where all their ancient ancestors were born, and the song reminded them that although they are American citizens, their lineage goes back to a foreign land. Those who are not of Italian descent may not automatically decipher the cultural heritage that was embodied in the said musical score; nonetheless, they know that this kind of music did not originate in America. Therefore, in the opening scene alone, the music prepares the audience for the inevitable culture shock.
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Rota’s haunting and sad music was not only a backdrop to signal the incoming cultural conflict, but it was also utilized to warn moviegoer that even if the American mafia had consolidated a great deal of political and economic power, tragedy awaits them at the end. At the same time, the slow cadence of the musical score and its eerie sound primes the moviegoers that death is just around the corner. At this early juncture, the film already prepares the audience that a bloodbath was the inevitable outcome of a mafia’s violent world.
The music’s powerful impact came to the fore when the image of Bonasera, the local undertaker was the first picture that introduced the movie’s visual component to the audience. In this opening scene, the film’s musical score worked in perfect tandem with its mise-en-scène component. According to film critics, great directors possess the skill to organize the contents of a frame, such as lighting, costume, décor, properties, and actors (Gibbs 5).
Mise-en-scène is the art of organizing the said contents. Therefore, the “organization of the contents of the frame encompasses the relationship of the actors to one another, and to the décor, but also their relationship to the camera, and thus the audience’s point of view” (Gibbs 5). Coppola’s expert application of the principles of mise-en-scène did not only create realistic portrayals of two conflicting cultures within American society, it also created scenes that intensified the intended message of the film.
Going back to the opening scene wherein audiences saw a groveling Bonasera, he was humbling himself even when he was clad in a tuxedo. His costume and the other elements of the frame tell the moviegoer that Bonasera was a successful American. However, if he was debasing himself in the presence of Don Corleone, then, it means that the man in front of him was a powerful leader. The camera reveals a rich and powerful figure, with a demeanor of a man that wants to be taken seriously at all times. The dialogue that ensues between Bonasera and Don Corleone revealed a great deal about the two conflicting cultures within the world of Sicilian Italian-Americans.
Music and Mise-en-scène
The next scene cuts into a typical Sicilian wedding. In the next few minutes, music played a major role in conveying the message that Sicilian Italian-Americans live in a dual world. The music playing in the background was accompanied by non-English lyrics. Be that as it may, the wedding scene was interrupted by the dramatic entrance of a popular Italian-American singer. He was compelled to sing a song for the bride, and his songs was in English, but the style tells the audience that it was a byproduct of a different world.
In the same sequence, the audience was introduced to Michael Corleone. In this frame, the elements were organized to show that Italian-Americans were able to fully assimilate into the American society. This was made clear when Michael Corleone came in wearing a uniform of a U.S. soldier. In addition, Michael Corleone entered the scene with a typical American girl in his arms. The said American girl, with clothes and mannerisms different from the other Italian-American women in the wedding party was added to provide a stark contrast between two different worlds.
In the first ten minutes of the movie, most of the shots were made inside the office of Don Corleone. In these frames, the elements were organized to show a critical aspect of a sub-culture, a Sicilian culture that is very much different from that of the American way of life. For example, Don Corleone was entertaining the requests of his friends and visitors, because it was considered bad luck for a Sicilian to refuse any kind of supplication that was made on his daughter’s wedding day.
Johnny Fontane the popular Italian-American singer made a request that his godfather was unable to refuse. In a pivotal scene, the sounds made in the said scene, and the organization of the elements worked beautifully to demonstrate the impact of a Sicilian’s criminal mind emboldened by traditions and the belief that the American way of life is no match for their rules and determination. In the said critical scene, the guttural sound coming from Jack Woltz throat as he laid eyes on the severed head of his prized thoroughbred enabled moviegoers to see the point of view of the director and producer with regards to the cultural and psychological struggles of the Sicilian mafia.
Gibbs, John. Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.
Sciannameo, Franco. Nino Rota’s The Godfather Trilogy. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010. Print.
The Godfather. Ex. Prod. Robert Evans. Coppola, Francis. Paramount Pictures. 1972. DVD.