Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a movie that tried to reinvent the way a gangster movie should be made. It did not focus on the criminal aspect of the gangster’s life. Instead, the focus is on the person, the personal conflicts and the decision-making process.
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Coppola wanted the audience to understand that the gangsters in the movie did not enjoy life as a criminal, they were simply forced to do a life of crime because of their love for their family. This means that the characters in the movie did everything they had to do for the sake of family.
The opening scene is a close-up shot of a middle-aged man. Partially illuminating only the face of this character and leaving the rest of the scene in shadow, the filmmaker focuses spectators’ attention on the speaker and creates the atmosphere of intimacy and secrecy.
Hiding the source of lighting as well as the details of the background, Coppola reveals the atmosphere of conspiracy surrounding the depicted dialogue. Close-up shot, half-darkness and peculiarities of mise-en-scene produce the impression that the spectators can see the man through the eyes of Don Corleone, his interlocutor and the only person present at this conversation.
The chosen film techniques produce a dramatic effect of initiating the audience into one of mafia’s secrets. The audience is riveted because the emotions projected on screen are so intense. The impressions from the scene under consideration and the dramatic dialogue are intensified through implementation of appropriate filmmaking techniques creating the atmosphere of conspiracy which does not allow to turn on the lights even though the interlocutors are alone.
There is another scene in the movie that will help understand the role of film techniques in revealing the core message of the story. In this scene the stageing and composition were crucial for conveying what the director tries to express (Rabiger, p.10).
In this particular scene the audience can see a mid shot of Michael Corleone. The lighting was bright because the scene is supposed to be upbeat. The shot was made in the midst of a wedding party. The staging is important because it shows that Michael Corleone is part of the group but at the same time he is an outsider.
The mid shot allows the audience to see that he is wearing a uniform. His uniform contrasts sharply with the other people at the party. The uniform shows that Michael Corleone is a man of strength and authority because he is the only soldier in the midst of civilians. Although there is a party going on, Michael Corleone seems to look out of place. Nevertheless, he forces himself to be there for the sake of his family.
Thus, analyzing the choice of lighting, mise-en-scene and background of this shot, it can be stated that in this case the film techniques are used by Coppola for showing the contrast between the character and the people surrounding him as well as the surrounding atmosphere of wedding and his personal feelings.
The third scene in which film techniques help convey the core message of the movie is the one wherein the male members of the Corleone family are talking about the effect of the assassination attempt sponsored by the rival families. It is a mid shot that shows the interaction between the family members.
The low-key lighting creates a somber mood because the characters are dealing with a family crisis. Michael Corleone is part of the group. The low-key lighting allow the audience to see the dramatic change in his demeanor, especially when he volunteered to be involved in the affairs of the crime syndicate and murder a man to avenge his father. Like in the first scene under analysis, the lack of lighting produces the effect of conspiracy of the depicted meeting and initiation of the audience into the family secret plans.
The choice of mise-en-scene depicting all the participants of the meeting at the same time but focusing on Michael for demonstrating the changes in his face expressions depict him as a part of the whole family, a true Corleone who decides to act according to their family principles.
In the middle-part of the movie there is a scene where Michael Corleone is in exile. The chosen wide shot allows the camera to show the scene in a full frame. This type of camera shot is used to reveal the setting and the difference between the characters in the frame. One is Michael Corleone who is a foreigner and therefore his clothes differ from the costumes of the two locals who are his bodyguards.
The bright lighting of the scene is used for showing not only the time of the day but also the inner feelings of the main character at the same time. The light reveals the changes in Michael’s mood after his depression as he manages to get accustomed to his environment.
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Taking into account that in the following episodes Michael falls in love and gets married, the lighting of this scene can be regarded as preparation of the audience for the following events. Thus, it can be stated that Coppola uses film techniques for not only intensifying the effect of particular scene, but also changing the spectators’ perception of following episodes.
The use of setting, lighting, close up and mid shots tells the story of the characters from a more personal and intense point of view. The lighting which is usually low-key help produce a more somber mood. This is needed to show how the characters struggled with the challenges of life.
However, it is clear that the director is trying to show how conflicted the characters were and the only thing that they really believe in is family. The director succeeded in showing that love for family is the reason why people are forced to do things that are against the law or even against their will.
Rabiger, Michael. Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics. Oxford: Focal Press, 2008.