The year is 1972. The Production Code has died permanently, giving birth to the MPAA rating system. What will filmmakers do with this newfound relative freedom? One filmmaker in particular, Francis Ford Coppola, would use it to tell an all-encompassing story with little left to the imagination. The Godfather uses explicit on-screen – primarily violence – to tell a story of betrayal, despair, and death without holding back. Two scenes in particular come into mind that express this sentiment. The first is the meeting between Luca Brasi and Turk Sollozzo. In this scene, Brasi is crossed before he can do the crossing, which results in his untimely death. What makes this scene stand out is the sequence that this following image belongs to:
Coppolla could have easily made it an implied death, or even an “easier” one; but instead, the audience is treated to the entire graphic execution in a disturbing way. The closeup shot gives a claustrophobic feeling, an uncomfortable brush with death itself; Brasi’s eyes bulging from his head imply fear, even from such a seemingly invulnerable man. The guttural noises that are emitted from this crushed throat tells of the life leaving his body. This death is effective not only because it affects the story in such a large way, but because we as the audience have experienced every gritty detail and know exactly how brutal the so-called gentlemen of business can be.
The other scene that stands out for this reason is the aptly named “Baptism of Fire” towards the end of the film. Michael Corleone, the former golden child, must simultaneously prove himself as a new Don and rid himself of both vicious enemies and traitorous allies. During the baptism of his sister’s son, he puts his plan into action: kill everyone.
While this plays out as a major victory for our protagonist, the audience can’t feel particularly good about it. An important piece to note is the expression on Michael’s face during the scene; not even he seems satisfied with the events occurring outside of the church. The juxtaposition in this scene is used to show the paradox that is a Don’s life: they must simultaneously be figures of mercy and morality for the community while ordering hits and paying extortion. While this is a clear theme throughout the film, this scene harps on it in a way that no other scene did. The violence in this scene feels professionally executed and ultimately impersonal. It intersperses the scenes of hyperviolence with scenes of the baptism to show the duality of Michael’s life. He may pretend that his hands are clean because he rarely does the dirty work, but deep inside he knows how broken his conscience and psyche are.