CW: death, violence
With the 50th anniversary of the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather, many cinemas throughout Oxford — including Curzon, Phoenix Picturehouse, and The Ultimate Picture Palace — showed Parts I and II in their theatres to nearly sold-out audiences. The special showings have provided film enthusiasts the opportunity to see the classic films in theatres; for many it was the first time. The simple act of seeing a well-known film in cinemas — as opposed to watching it on a streaming service — has the potential to give the film another life and enables audiences to see it from a new perspective.
The Godfather is a controversial topic in popular culture. Ask two different people for their opinions on it and they will give wildly different answers. To fans, it is the beginning of a duology that can be considered two of the greatest films ever made. To others, it represents a class of film that people pretend to like; in reality, it’s boring, drawn-out, hard to follow, and — worst of all — overrated. Whatever your persuasion, The Godfather is undeniably an ambitious, well-made film with a vast cultural impact.
A film that rests so prominently in the public’s psyche can be difficult to watch subjectively. Audiences go into it with their own biases and expectations. In many ways, they have already formed their opinions before hearing “I believe in America” for the first time.
And now to expose my own biases: The Godfather is one of my favourite films. It has been since I first watched it on TV at age seventeen. I was taking a film class in school and knew that I was supposed to love this film. I couldn’t entirely follow what was happening. Sometimes, I couldn’t even make out Marlon Brando’s breathy dialogue without turning up the TV speakers. But I loved it. The portrayal of crime-ridden 1940-50s New York with the film’s 1970s atmosphere made me dream of seeing it in a real cinema someday.
The 8.30 showing I attended at Phoenix Picturehouse was sold out. The theatre burst with every type of filmgoer: students, families, elderly couples, groups of friends who later discussed the film outside over cigarettes, young amorous couples who made out as people were murdered onscreen, and plenty of solo film enthusiasts like me. We all sat shoulder-to-shoulder, in a small movie theatre in 2022, to see this film from 1972.
The Godfather gripped the audience in rapt attention. Everyone held their breath as Jack Woltz followed the layer of blood in his bed to the severed head of his prize horse. Some leaned forward in their seats when Michael crept around the empty hospital trying to protect his father. Others audibly gasped when the car blew up (to avoid spoilers, I won’t say who was in the car). Everyone laughed when Clemenza made fun of Michael for not telling Kay he loves her over the phone while standing in a room full of mafiosi. The audience’s reactions, in the same vein as Cinema Paradiso, added to the viewing experience. There is something to be said for the fact that The Godfather could elicit these reactions.
The experience did not stop after the end credits. As I left the theatre, I heard different groups discussing the film on the pavement outside. One woman stated “I liked it” to her friends in an unsure tone. A man told his wife he didn’t remember it being so violent as they stood with their rather young-looking children. A student kept repeating the word “incredible” and shaking their head. A man talked about how this was his second time seeing it in cinemas that week.
Watching classic films in cinemas is somewhat of an attraction. It is, after all, viewing them in the manner they are meant to be viewed. There is a sense of nostalgia as well as a sense of reinvention.
This viewing was like watching the film for the first time… again. I knew what was going to happen but I couldn’t wait to see how it played out. It was better than any previous time I watched the film at home. The rise of streaming services has changed how we watch films. As with many media innovations and changes, this is neither an inherently positive nor negative phenomenon. Streaming services have made film more accessible. People now have easier access to more films and more genres of films than they did before. However, the fact remains that we now watch them in drastically different ways than filmmakers originally intended. The screens are smaller and the ease of watching at home involves more distractions than a cinema. As I witnessed the reactions of the audience around me, I wondered if perhaps films are also meant to be seen in the company of others. It makes the comedic parts funnier, the suspenseful parts scarier, and the gruesome parts a little more bearable.
The Godfather certainly seemed different through the perspective of a cinema chair as opposed to my sofa. The violence on screen, while somewhat tame by today’s standards, was much more impactful and grotesque on the big screen of a cinema. Cinematographer Gordon Willis and Coppola’s brilliant use of lighting and colour was magnified. Deliberate choices related to composition and blocking were starker and more effective. Unlike my previous experiences watching the film, the dialogue was clear and captivating, demonstrating the brilliance of the script.
The Godfather’s mixed reputation remains when people see it in a cinema — I witnessed this first hand. However, experiencing the film in a noticeably different way — visually, audibly, and surrounded by an entranced audience — might just sway the opinion of those who deem it an overrated film. Seeing it on a large screen with its grainy old-school yet inventive visuals, one of the things that struck me the most was that The Godfather is gritty. It is authentic, raw, violent. There are editing mistakes. It is an imperfect film. But it is a masterpiece.
Perhaps the secret to ‘saving’ cinemas in the age of streaming services is to show more classic films and audience favourites in theatres. With the popularity of the showings of the Godfather movies and other series like The Ultimate Picture Palace’s “The World of Wong Kar-Wai,” there is no denying that seeing these films in theatres appeals to audiences. People, perhaps even unconsciously, want to experience them in their intended form. Watching a film on a laptop in bed is great, but going to the cinema to watch a classic film is, without a doubt, a worthwhile experience.