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The Godfather Trilogy: The Path of Redemption Through Lighting

Updated on October 2, 2011

Light is as dynamic and as complex as any other part of the filmmaking experience. Through lighting, characters are portrayed and given characteristics that are unachievable through other means, such as mise en scene. Nick Browne author of Francis Ford Coppola’s: The Godfather Trilogy says, “The cinematic frames, though deliberately composed, and rarely beautiful in their own right, but function both to recount the story and to interpret it by tone, scale, and texture” (Browne 4). The complexity and subtleness that light therefore brings to a film determines how audiences perceive characters and the situations that they are in. A film that exceeds at capturing the full power of lights effect on cinema is Francis Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.

Just as an actor has the ability to manipulate an audience’s emotions through acting, light has the power to dramatize and affect how an audience will react to a scene. In the first Godfather film, Coppola proves that through the power of lighting a character’s persona can be enhanced, and light can quickly become an extension of a particular character. In the opening sequence of the first Godfather film, light is already a prevalent character. When the scene begins we see that there is a man who is sitting down telling a tragic tale of misfortune about his daughter. The light in the scene is dim and harshly lit. On top of the overall lighting, what really captures the essence of the scene is when the godfather, Don Vito (Marlon Brando), is shown for the first time. Upon seeing Don Vito for the first time audiences are drawn to his eyes, which appear to be almost completely blacked out. This effect caused by overhead lighting creates two prominent shadows underneath Don Vito’s eyes. According to Nick Browne, “It is a cinema of transparency…for it is the framelines and the lighting that create dark hollows and zones of significant illumination that give meaning to the actors’ looks, movement, and lines” (Browne 3). This use of the eyes blacked out by what little light in the room is very important because it gives Don Vito’s character a type of mask, in which he can hide behind, this in turn makes Vito incredibly hard to read. Contrast the eyes with the soft light in the room and the overall the effect illustrates the shady business that is taking place and establishes Vito Corleone as a powerful, but dark figure.

In Godfather II light is manipulated and characterized in a different way by showing Micheal (Al Pacino) as the new and powerful godfather. In his attempt to legitimize his business, the light in the second film reflects Michael’s direction in bringing his family out of closed doors and bringing his operation into the public view. In the scene where Michael is in the Havana with several other business associates celebrating the birthday of Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), the audience sees that the business is now starting to occur outside. The amount of natural light therefore tells the audience that Michael is moving in another direction, one in which he is trying to legitimize his business by bringing it into public view and in to the light.

The Godfather trilogy that is arguably Coppola’s masterpiece emphasizes throughout all three films that in order for a mafia to stay strong they must shroud their murders they carry out from the public eye. In this sense Coppola uses light in the second Godfather to exaggerate Michael’s ability to keep himself hidden when he orders a hit on someone. A prime example of this occurs towards the end of the movie, when he orders the hit on his own brother Fredo (John Cazale). In this scene the environment controls the lighting, as we see that Fredo is on a boat in the middle of a lake. The day is overcast and a blanket of clouds, which prevents any light from entering, covers the sky. In this sense the audience see’s Michael as a god like figure for his power over the element of nature, which allows him to kill his own brother in public, but still be invisible to everyone else. As Browne says, “The final scene shows Michael after having seen his brother killed sitting alone and bereft against a cold winter sky” (Browne,8). The importance of this scene relies on the fact that light and nature are tied together, and through nature in the second Godfather, we can see the true power that Michael possesses in covering up his murders.

Both the first and second Godfather films are important in establishing Michael’s control of the family, but the third film seeks redemption and forgiveness for Michael’s past transgressions. Throughout the third film then the light is harnessed in a way to enrich the colors that are in the scenes, but also to judge Michael on whether or not he should be considered evil or good by the end of the film. This contrast between good and evil is reflected in how much light is shown in each scene and what shadows, or darkness cover up. In the final scene of the film we see a poor defeated old Michael, sitting in the bright harsh sunlight. Reflecting on his life in his last few moments, he then falls to the ground and dies in the dirt. The lighting in the scene of Michael’s death becomes powerful because the lighting reveals symbolically the final judgment on Michael. This is demonstrated with all of the key lights and fill lights to expose every part of Michael. This is drastically different from the first film, because the lighting prevents people from reading the thoughts of Vito and Michael by using shadows to mask their eyes. When the last scene of the trilogy then reflects Michael in complete sunlight, we begin to see Michael as a person in pain and someone who has lost everyone he cared about around him. This then leads the audience to forgive Michael and consider him a good man after all.

Francis Ford Coppola has not only created a historical social commentary on America, and legendary trilogy, but he has also created, and paved the way in how lighting in films can be as expressive, and dynamic as the characters themselves. His mastery of overhead lighting to create a character that is viewed as powerful, but dangerous is a mark of his talent both as a filmmaker, but more importantly as an auteur. His subtleness in creating an environment, which is symbolic, and sets the mood for the films is un-matched and will continue to inspire other filmmakers to utilize the power of lighting in future films to come.


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