There are very few movies that change the way we think and watch the movies themselves, and The Godfather is one such film for me. I’ve seen this movie three or four times, and every time, the garden scene between Vito and Michael stood out for me. I know almost every scene in this movie is perfect, with compelling performances from the terrific cast, but this scene was more than all that; this simple three-minute conversation between the father and son is hands-down the finest in cinema.
Usually, every serious family discussion scene in the movie happens indoors, formally, thereby leading it to be more important. But this scene between Vito and Michael takes place in a garden that is completely out in the open, with both of them sitting on patio furniture. Michael Corleone has his back to us on the left, while his father, Vito Corleone, looks away to the right. They are meeting to discuss Michael’s possible assassination by a traitor in the business. Though the whole discussion takes place in the garden, both Vito and Michael are seated at the edge of the garden and not in the middle—where there are rows of vegetables being cultivated—which reinforces the idea that they are not in the garden casually, but to go over a plan to keep Michael safe. The fencing encloses the garden and gives it an exclusive feel, and the lighting is grey rather than sunny and bright, suggesting the death that looms over both of them.
First of all, we get to see the mighty Vito Corleone worn down by age. Then the camera shifts, showing us Michael whose face is young and who has black hair. Another observation to be noted is how Michael’s clothes are more formal and polished than Vito’s dull informal wear, suggesting that he has now retired from the family business. Then the whole mood of the scene lightens with Vito kicking off the conversation by saying that he started drinking more wine, and going on to ask about Michael’s son and how he can read funny papers at the age of three. All these moments, along with the light background score with birds chirping, show the affection between them despite having an uncertain and dangerous future.
Then the mood shifts quickly, as the talk now begins to suggest the disconnect between the both of them over the years. This whole fifty-second part of the scene is powerful, and both of the actors (Al Pacino and Marlon Brando) being legends, they take it to a whole new level. The beauty here is how Vito’s and Michael’s eyes never meet, and this suggests their relationship in many ways. First, being of different generations, they are constantly seeing things from different perspectives. Don Vito is still in the old habit of going over plans, and Michael has to constantly reassure him that he has already taken care of things. Lastly, there’s the possibility that Don Vito can’t look at Michael because he literally can’t face the reality that his son has become the new Don Corleone.
In the final moments of the scene, we can see Vito moving closer to Michael, making the space between them significantly smaller. Even though Don Corleone stands up, he doesn’t have a strong presence nor much authority in the frame because his eyes are still looking down, and his walk to the seat is weak, which showcases his old age even more. In these moments the lighting is used tremendously well: despite the fact that Don Corleone is closer to the screen because of where he is seated, his appearance is darkened, and Michael’s face is lit up in profile. The lighting naturally forces our eyes to focus on Michael’s face, making us see Don Corleone as a mere shadow, almost insignificant. Under the safety of the shadows, Vito allows himself to say, “But I never wanted this for you.” The confession enables the scene to reach a higher level of intimacy without the need for light or eye contact because the words carry all the weight.
The scene wraps up with Don Corleone kissing Michael on the cheek, giving a last-minute warning about the traitor, and then walking out of the frame. Immediately, we see Michael lie down, suggesting a son who wanted to free his father of all troubles, and also assuring the audience that he is now the new Don Corleone.
The Godfather is proof that when a perfect script meets a competent director and the finest actors, it eventually lead to a perfect film.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.