It's hard to imagine a movie with more acclaim than The Godfather. The whole movie is filled with lessons. It's a classic, and probably my vote for the best film ever made. From the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo to the box-office blockbuster, its influential legacy endures to this day.
This first installment in the three-movie saga paints a dramatic portrait of the Corleone family's rise and near fall from power. This brilliant masterpiece garnered 10 Academy Award nominations and won three, including Best Picture.
The movie's opening scene is historic and perfect. I think it might provide you with three lessons you can apply to any scene you work on. Check out the clip from Paramount Movies and let's talk after.
3 Lessons from the Opening Scene of The Godfather
1. Subtext in story
From the opening lines of "I believe in America," we begin to understand that this is a movie about the American dream. In the opening scene, we hear a speech. Not only do we get subtext about what it's like to be an immigrant in America, but we also understand the mafia's role in the community, and how they take care of these immigrants. We're informing a lot about the roles of the people in the scene as well.
We know the person off-screen is someone you go to when you need something. You know they have power. But you also know our character was afraid to go to them before. They went to the police instead.
We start with so much subtext, that the story feels palpable before we even really begin. And the cinematography really helps with that.
2. Cinematography that emphasizes the mood
The entire film has some of the most beautiful cinematography ever done. Gordon Willis shot the movie, and his soul is on the screen. I know there are lots of legends about all the fights behind the scenes between Coppola, Willis, and the studio.
But the finished product here showcases how the best cinematography emphasizes the mood. A bad shot to open this movie could take us out of the scene. Instead, this slow pullback and then shot-reverse-shot steeps us in the words spoken by the actor. We get the subtext from the point above and we get a subtle move that keeps us in the world. It emphasizes the tone of the movie and sets us off into a world that burns slow and hot.
3. Side characters that matter
Bonasera is just one of the great side characters in this film. So many people focus on main characters, but side characters are incredibly important. We know from the rest of this movie that we'll meet this person again. But a side character can deliver amazing lines and be the vehicle for exposition that's not boring. When they have to deliver the context and subtext, you need someone who feels like a real person.
This is not just a funeral director, but a father. He's someone who cares about his family and would do anything for them, even making a deal with someone who scares him. Now he owes the Godfather a favor.—one we will see cashed in later. It's not an ideal place to be, but it will get him what he wants. Bonasera has motivation in the scene and gets out with what he wants. No matter the price.
What else have you learned from this opening scene? Tell us in the comments.