Film: Francis Ford Coppola—Family Man

The phenomenal box-office and artistic success of The Godfather and The Godfather—Part II in the early 1970s made Francis Ford Coppola, a young writer/director of Italian-American descent, the wonder boy of American popular culture. He was the first major director to break into the Hollywood studio system from a university program in filmmaking. This represented not only a generational change—until then, Hollywood directors came from within studio ranks, from television, or though personal connections—but it also introduced a conscious approach toward cinema as an artistic endeavor shaped b many traditions.

Long Island to Los Angeles

Coppola was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1939. His parents, Carmine, a professional musician, and Italia Coppola were first-generation Americans of southern Italian stock. They raised their three children, Francis being the youngest, in the New York suburbs. It was a closely knit middle-class family, with artistic inclinations. Coppola has recounted with fondness the creative side of his childhood and early youth as well as his fascination with machinery and technology. After a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Hofstra University in Long Island, Coppola moved to Los Angeles to attend the U.C.L.A. film program in the early 1960s.

Like Orson Welles, with whom he has often been compared, Coppola has an ambivalent relationship with the film industry. In order to achieve independence from the studios, Coppola’s career zigzagged between hired gun assignments and more personal projects. In 1969 he founded American Zoetrope, a San Francisco-based production company whose near bankruptcy, despite its impressive gathering of film talent, made Coppola accept the offer to direct The Godfather. In 1979, he founded Zoetrope Studios, an old-style Hollywood production facility with state-of-the art equipment, which actually did go bankrupt after the foundering of his romantic comedy, One from the Heart (1982).

Coppola has assembled over the years a group of devoted collaborators, including Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Dean Tavoularis and editor Walter Murch.

Unlike other younger members of the “movie brat” generation now in their fifties—like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma—who have successfully become the Hollywood establishment, Coppola’s public image is still that of the rebel artist fighting to make a personal vision come to the screen. Perhaps nothing indicates this more clearly than the horrific struggles to shoot the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now that Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, captured in her documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).

Italian-American Struggle

In our survey of film directors who bring to the screen a Catholic understanding of the human condition, we have already examined the cases of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock (CRISIS, October 1996 and April 1997), artists who displayed a strong directorial signature in the golden age of the studio system. Coppola is a relevant example in contemporary Hollywood. A talented filmmaker who may have produced his best work before he was forty, Coppola’s vision of man, sin, redemption, family, and responsibility is drawn from the Catholic well, shaped by an Italian sense of beauty and allegory.

Except for Lee Lourdeaux’s study of Coppola in Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America (1992), the relationship between the director and Catholicism has been glossed over almost exclusively in terms of his ethnic background. Lourdeaux sees at the heart of the artist the contradictions of an Italian-American dual identity. We may add that a tension between celebration and restraint, between oversized emotions and tightly woven structures, between metaphor and realism, between fairytale narrative and realistic drama, is at the root of Coppola’s work to date.

In addition to an episode of the anthology New York Stories (1989), and the three dimensional science-fiction short Captain Eo (1986) for the Disney theme parks, Coppola has directed eighteen pictures. He has written, alone or in collaboration, most of his films. Among these, perhaps the essential Coppola is comprised of The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather—Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979)—all dissections of American contemporary history and politics through the eyes of ambivalent heroes.

The Family Divided

The same way a typical Fordian narrative involves an isolated community in danger and one by Hitchcock concerns an innocent man fighting evil forces beyond his control, a classic Coppolian situation focuses on a family, or a substitute family, threatened by destruction from within. Two basic types of ambivalent heroes, the loner outsider and the flawed godfather—categories in flux—operate in a universe rendered, like Ford’s and Hitchcock’s, in moral terms.

The complex choreography of lights and shadows to depict the spread of moral evil is the most revealing visual trait of the ’70s masterpieces and the intellectually ambitious Dracula. The way the gangster patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is shown doing business in the opening scene of The Godfather, and the chiaroscuro lighting of the huge shaved forehead of the crazed Kurtz (Brando again) when he first appears near the end of Apocalypse Now are visual clues to these characters. Since Coppola was working in Dracula within the conventions of the horror genre, the expressionistic use of light and shadow foregrounds the decor as an extension of a vampire conceived as the lonely monster of Beauty and the Beast awaiting redemption.

The Godfather trilogy, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, is a gripping examination of how moral evil destroys a Mafia family that, on one level, Coppola intended to be a warped metaphor for capitalism. But Coppola has noted that it is also “like the Oresteia [of Aeschylus] showing how evil reverberates over a period of generations.” The reference to Greek tragedy seems at first applicable to the seventy-year story of the Corleones, a Sicilian peasant family of immigrants who become Mafiosi through the ruthless tactics of soft-spoken Vito and his university-trained son Michael (Al Pacino). Yet the downfall of the Corleones is not due to fate or circumstances beyond human control. Theirs is not the case of heroes struck down by an act of the gods. It is rather the Christian drama of choosing evil over good, in a state of lucidity. It is the decision to gain and exert power through murder and revenge, to the point of fratricide.

The Godfather shows how Michael, an outsider in the family business, becomes the new godfather. His motivations are left opaque; only his choices are eloquent. In the visually stunning climax of the film, Coppola encapsulates the trajectory of Michael through a now classic piece of bravura editing, a parallel montage that leaps from Michael as the godfather during the baptism of his nephew to the brutal elimination of the rival Mafia family heads. In the very act of renouncing the Devil as part of the baptismal rite, Michael in fact becomes one.

The Godfather, Part II, weaves two stories in counterpoint, structured around the Mafia as a style of life and a “business”: the ascent of Vito Corleone, a man passionately devoted to his family; and the descent of Michael, who presides over the dissolution of his family while attaining maximum power. Two cynical lines that have seeped into American culture capture the Corleone style of management: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “It’s not personal . . . it’s strictly business.”

The Godfather—Part III lays out the question of sin, repentance, making amends, and redemption in Michael, who believes he is beyond salvation. Two key scenes show the clarity of conscience and pragmatism with which he approaches the issue. While in Italy for family and business matters—a subplot about Vatican finances and the brief papacy of John Paul I—he goes to confession inspired by the moral rectitude of Cardinal Lamberto (Van Heflin). “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?” he asks the prelate. “You are a practical man,” the priest retorts, advising him to give it a try. Soon after, while mourning an old protector assassinated by the Mafia, Michael pleads with God: “Give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.” Tragically, though his prayer is heard, Michael no longer has the will to extricate himself from the web of revenge that he has woven. In this life he pays for his sins through the death of his daughter Mary and by losing both his wife and son, who reject the “Sicilian thing,” the cycle of revenge that has destroyed three generations of Corleones.

The Horror

Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella The Heart of Darkness, also depicts the encounters of tormented heroes with moral evil—”The horror . . . the horror” of Conrad’s original—in the context of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Orson Welles wrote an unproduced screenplay in 1939 equating Kurtz—the European who lost his mind in the Belgian Congo—with Hitler. Like Citizen Kane it was a study on the corruption of the powerful. For his own part, Coppola is clear about the complex nature of his film, which on the one hand is a realistic portrayal of modern warfare (like the stunning helicopter attack to the sound of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”), and on the other is a metaphor “of the voyage of life that each of us takes within ourselves and during which we choose between good and evil.”

Horror and madness are the manifestations of evil, as experienced by Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) on his mission upriver to exterminate Kurtz, a brilliant officer who cut himself loose from the Army to fight his own war. Both a fallen angel and flawed godfather (like Michael Corleone) and a Patton gone insane, Kurtz is seen through Willard’s eyes. Progressively fascinated by the moral terror with which Kurtz exerts his power, Willard finally rejects the temptation to become like him. In another powerful and climactic montage, the ritual killing of an ox is set in counterpoint with Willard’s execution of Kurtz.

Like the original novella, the film initially was structured as a flashback, with Willard’s voice-over recounting, as in a confession, the mission he was given for his sins. Traces of this pattern, later changed to a straightforward narration, can still be seen in the intriguing opening sequence set in a Saigon hotel. Although the ending underwent several drastic changes, in Coppola’s final conception of the story, where Willard refuses to preside over darkness, pessimism has given way to a guarded hope.

Taking Responsibility

The theme of a person’s responsibility toward others runs strongly through Coppola’s work. In the Catholic tradition, responsibility derives from the notion that the human family is one body with many members, living and dead, constituting the communion of the saints. Responsibility is at the core of The Rain People, a tale about a pregnant married woman (Shirley Knight) initially unable to accept the responsibilities of motherhood. A brain-damaged but childlike college football player (James Caan), whom she is forced to take care of, becomes the sacrificial figure who triggers her process of acceptance. The Conversation is an existential thriller focused on an eavesdropper (Gene Hackman) whose obsession with personal privacy is shattered when he realizes that his work may be lethal to a couple first seen strolling in San Francisco’s Union Square. Built around a progressively amplified sound recording of a murder plan—echoes of Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966)—the plot unfolds as the protagonist sacrifices his insularity to counter, with tragic results, the consequences of his work. Significantly, the rebirth of his lulled conscience first takes place during confession.

The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, two teenage dramas based on S. E. Hinton novels about gangs and their rebellion, hinge on the relationship between brothers in fractured families. Stylistically very different, the films reflect Coppola’s consistent concerns with communication, nostalgia for family unity, and the role of caring older brothers, a recurrent autobiographical trait. “An existential art film for children” in Coppola’s words, Rumble Fish and The Conversation are his two favorite pictures.

Side by side with sentiments and a nostalgia for family unity, Coppola simultaneously portrays a destructive side to family relations and other hierarchically ordered institutions: the Mafia, with its perverted codes of honor; the Army, which sacrifices the individual to patriotism, especially in the Vietnam drama Gardens of Stone (1987); and the temporal power of the Catholic Church in The Godfather—Part III. In this regard, Lourdeaux notes how second-generation Italian-Americans like Coppola and Scorsese are much quicker to find fault with their ethnic and religious heritage than John Ford or Frank Capra, sons of Irish and Italian immigrants.

Coppola seldom discusses Catholicism in public, and then mainly in connection with his family background or certain specific films, like the Godfather saga and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which utilize Catholic rituals and fallen angel figures. The bloody and stylized preface to Dracula, set in Transylvania in the fifteenth century—a departure from the original 1897 novel—provides a visual, psychological, and moral frame to the story unfolding in the late 1890s. Coppola wanted to foreground the sacramental aspect of man’s relationship to God, as he wrote in the picture book accompanying the film:

Dracula has been portrayed as a monster or as a seducer, but knowing his biography made me think of him as a fallen angel, as Satan. The irony is that he was a champion of the Church, this hero who single-handedly stopped the Turks, and then renounced God because his wife was a suicide and was denied holy burial. . . . So when Dracula rejects God, blood becomes the basis of all kinds of unholy sacrament in the story: baptism, marriage, the Mass. . . .

Therefore, the death of Dracula in the last scene has a redemptive and sacrificial quality that links it to the preface and functions as a coda about love triumphing over evil.

Coppola’s body of work to this day show that his Italian-American background roots him in a Catholic understanding of the human experience. In contemporary Hollywood, there is no other director that celebrates with such passion the joys, sorrows, and fractures of family life.

Films of Francis Ford Coppola

available on video

Dementia 13 (1963)
You’re a Big Boy Now (1966)
Finian’s Rainbow (1968)
The Rain People (1969)
The Godfather (1972)
The Conversation (1974)
The Godfather—Part II (1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
One from the Heart (1982)
The Outsiders (1983)
Rumble Fish (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Captain Eo (1986)
Gardens of Stone (1987)
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
New York Stories (Segment 2, 1989)
The Godfather—Part III (1990)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Jack (1996)


  • Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz

    At the time this article was published, Maria Elena de las Carrerras Kuntz, a film critic from Argentina, was living in Northridge, California. She holds a Ph.D. in film and television studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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