One Moment Please | Movies

When Vito Corleone tells his infant son: Your father loves you very much

‘I am drawn to creative works about children trying to resist the influence of problematic parents’-

In this space last year, I wrote about the effect of watching a film — Ravi Jadhav’s Nude — set in an art school my mother had once attended. This current column is, without having been planned that way, a parental companion piece. As I write it, I’m about to go to Doon School, Dehradun, to hold a workshop on film appreciation. I’ve never been there before, but my father, who died exactly two years ago this week, studied there.

My relationship with him was very troubled, to put it mildly; things had gone wrong for him in his teenage years, as he fell into what would become a lifetime of drug abuse and consequent mental illness and delusion. After his death, it was both soothing and depressing to hear complimentary things about what a fine student and “all-rounder” he had been in his school days, intelligent and sensitive.

I have always felt a strong personality connect with my father, and feel very lucky that I have (so far) led a more stable life. For this reason, I am drawn to creative works about children trying to resist the influence of problematic parents. And I’m thinking now of two narratives — one, a celebrated 1970s film, the other, an episode from an acclaimed series — that cross-cut between the lives of a father and son, creating both parallels and contrasts. One of them even centres on a boarding school.

First blood

A film clip I am showing at the Doon workshop is the scene midway through The Godfather Part II where young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) becomes a killer for the first time. The sequence is a masterclass in the use of space, colour and movement: the formidable Don Fanucci saunters through Little Italy’s crowded streets (a religious procession is on), Vito tracks him from the rooftops, lithely moving from one building to another. He intercepts and shoots Fanucci in a darkened stairway; deed done, he returns home, takes his infant son Michael’s hand into his own, and says in Italian, “Your father loves you very much.”

Stills from the Netflix series ‘The Crown’.

Stills from the Netflix series ‘The Crown’.  

This last bit might be deemed a case of a great film becoming too obvious in its symbolism. Here is a man, hands freshly tainted by murder, almost literally “passing on” the sin to his baby boy (who, the informed viewer knows, will grow up to be his eventual successor). But then The Godfather Part II is an example of what Manny Farber described as White Elephant Art: a behemoth, loudly trumpeting its themes, as it cuts between young Vito, making his way up the ladder of organised crime, and Michael, consumed by his father’s legacy decades later.

But elephants can be graceful too. On the one hand, there is the restraint we expect of Francis Ford Coppola and his Method actors, the attention to detail, the small gestures; on the other hand, there are sweeping, operatic moments; grand statements about family, religion, original sin. And there are cinematic echoes: when Vito retrieves a gun from a chimney, it recalls the scene in the first Godfather film where Michael, ready for his first killing, dislodges a concealed gun from behind a flush-tank. But it’s fascinating to discuss the Fanucci murder scene even with students who don’t know Godfather lore: they respond to the black humour, the ironic use of the Jesus statue, the lighting and many other things.

I was reminded of The Godfather Part II last year when I saw an outstanding episode of the Netflix series The Crown. ‘Paterfamilias’ is a dramatisation of the boarding-school childhoods, 25 years apart, of Prince Philip and his son Charles. The extroverted Philip attends Gordonstoun School in the 1930s, survives a personal tragedy, and is toughened; the more sheltered and reserved Charles, raised as a future king from early childhood, finds it much harder to adapt to the boarding-school ethos.

This is a beautifully structured, performed and scored (by Rupert Gregson-Williams) episode, combining grandeur with intimacy much like Coppola’s film did. It also achieves that rare feat, creating empathy for two very different personality types. A scene near the end where Philip explodes in anger at his “weak” son may seem like a textbook case of an alpha-male bullying an introvert, but it’s possible to feel deeply for both characters. As one line in the episode goes, “You too will fail, as all parents do, and be hated in turn.”

I’m tempted to show this 50-minute episode too at my workshop, but I’m not sure that would be a nice thing to do to boarding school students, some of who may have their own daddy issues.

The Delhi-based writer and film critic says he finds it easier to concentrate on specific scenes as he grows older.

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Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 12:17:23 AM |

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