What makes a great film? In areas of art, certain denotations of greatness come down to personal taste. But most would agree that a great film would feature remarkable performances, considered visuals and a well-crafted, well-paced script.
So is making a great film as easy as checking off a list of requirements? Perhaps not. But for now let's move away from the abstract and discuss one great film in particular: The Godfather.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather came out in 1972 and instantly became an American classic. It was the highest grossing film of that year and at the 45th Academy Awards it walked away with three awards, including best picture. In the ensuing decades The Godfather has been named the 2nd greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute, ranked 23rd by the most recent Sight and Sound poll conducted by the British Film Institute, ranked 2nd in The Writer’s Guild’s 2006 list of the greatest screenplays, ranked as the 6th best edited film of all time in 2012 by the Motion Picture Editors Guild and was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” As Roger Ebert wrote in his journal in 2010, it “comes closest to being a film everyone agrees... is unquestionably great.”
So, back to our abstract question, is The Godfather great because it checks off all the boxes required for greatness? Or, are those merely what it takes to be a good film and greatness comes from being more than the sum of its parts? It may be harder to pinpoint, but all great films are telling stories on multiple levels; many that are so subliminal they go unnoticed, but never unfelt. That’s why we can continue to analyze these films decades after their release and still add to the conversation. In that spirit, and in honor of great film, we will be exploring favorite movies through its use of flowers.
Now, when you think of The Godfather, the prototype for every violent gangster movie that’s come after it, flowers probably aren’t the first things to come to mind. But they’re there and they’re subtlety underlining the story motifs and adding nuance to an already complex, layered story. And you know why? Because The Godfather is great.
The World Is a Bouquet
In addition to its other many great aspects, The Godfather reached its place on a pedestal in no small part thanks to its instantly iconic visuals. Its sepia-toned aesthetic has become the standard for stylish period pieces, but its use of greenery and flowers is just as instantly recognizable if not as often discussed.
In essence, the entire film reads as an old world bouquet. Lush greenery provides the backdrop, especially at the Corleone house, while blossoms of white crop up in actual flowers and the costuming and pops of red come in courtesy of blood. As with many old world style bouquets, The Godfather also features fruit, in this case, oranges.
Prior to any act of violence or death, oranges appear. So, if we are imagining this film as an old world bouquet, it goes greenery, white, greenery, orange, red, greenery, white, greenery. Or maybe something like this:
Vito Corleone Is a Red Rose
The most overt use of flowers to underline the narrative comes within the opening scenes. The Godfather begins with the wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) and as members of the wedding party; the men of the Corleone family, including Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) are all wearing boutonnieres, all except Michael.
Michael (Al Pacino) shows up in his army uniform, with no space for a boutonniere, which immediately sets him apart and marks him as “other” within this family. He’s clearly not interested in the family business or really with the family in general. In fact, the only time we ever see Michael with a white boutonniere is at his own wedding in Sicily; after he’s killed two men, gone into hiding and firmly aligned himself with the family business.
In this first scene the flowers are used to further illustrate the hierarchy by color. All the men are wearing white roses, but Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is wearing a red rose. He’s wearing a flower to symbolize the family, but as the only one with color, it illustrates his rank within the family and the business.
Red roses are most commonly associated with love or passion. But The Godfather isn’t that type of movie. In this instance the red draws correlation to blood and violence. As the head of the crime family, the blood is literally on Vito’s hands. Or at least his lapel. This association with a red rose is called on again after his death. While many, many flowers are brought to the graveside, its red roses that are dropped into the grave with him.
Flowers = Home = Family
Unsurprisingly, flowers are also used to underline the most important theme of The Godfather: family. As mentioned before, a lot of the greenery is found at the Corleone estate.
Tying it back into the family business, when Vito, the head, heart and soul of the family, is attacked and the future of the family business lies in limbo, that is the only time we see the home garden looking dead and shriveled. Alternatively, when Vito actually dies in the garden, it is in full bloom. That’s because the future of the family is assured. Michael is poised to take the reigns, partly thanks to a heart to heart he has with his father… also in the garden.
Flowers are also prominent at Connie’s wedding (obviously), Sonny’s house and Michael’s home in Sicily.
Flowers also play an integral part to the iconic last shots of the film thanks to the Corleone family wallpaper. As Michael takes on the role of Don and essentially takes out the rest of the crime families, Kay begins to question his actions. He tells her she can ask him about his business just this once and he’ll tell the truth. And then he lies to her.
Then Kay goes across the hall to a room covered in floral wallpaper. She is firmly implanted in this family, but in this case that distinction is a separation. She watches as Michael’s lieutenants greet him as the Don and then the door closes. She is family, as indicated by flowers, but she’s not that family and so she’s shut out.
So, no, The Godfather isn’t great because of its use of flowers, but the fact that we can parse out so much from the film’s use of flowers is, one of the many things, that makes it great.
For related articles about flowers in film, check out How Flowers Told One Of The Greatest Love Stories In Film and The Language of Lilies in Harry Potter.
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures via film-grab.com]