The Godfather and Parallel Editing: Baptism & Murder

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Author: Bryan Ghingold

Released in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which was shot on a shoestring budget with studio intervention and scrutiny every step of the way, has since been regarded as one of the best films in American Cinema. The amount of references, homage, nods, and parodies of and to The Godfather, and its effects on popular culture are immeasurable.

Set in post-WWII New York, the film follows the rise and fall of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the only “straight” member of his mob family led by Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Michael, a war veteran and upstanding citizen, is shielded by his father from the life of crime and danger his brothers are exposed to, but when an attack on his father’s life brings an end to the truce between the five mafia families of Old New York, Michael steps in to preserve his family’s honor.

After murdering his father’s would-be assassin, Michael flees to Italy, staying with a family friend for protection. When his brother is killed in the mob war going on stateside, and his Italian bride is killed by a car bomb, Michael returns home, and takes over the “family business” from an ailing Vito.

The film culminates with a parallel sequence showing both the baptism of Michael’s godson, and the executions of the remaining 5 dons of New York. This is the scene in which I focused my analysis. I never had the need to analyze this scene so closely before, and in doing so, I discovered just how brilliant the editing is; often times parallel on a symbolic level as well as a narrative one.

Parallel editing is primarily used to show multiple events happening at the same time, either from different perspectives, or at different locations. In the “Baptism & Murder” sequence, time is compressed to show both the baptism of Michael’s nephew and godson, as well as the planning, build up, and eventual murder of the mafia dons of New York.

I primarily noticed a consistency in shot distance, and often times shot length between the two narratives. Scenes at the church that were conveyed through long shots, extreme long shots, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, etc, were paralleled by Michael’s thugs preparing for, and ultimately executing the murders. In addition, the length of each shot (2 seconds, 7 seconds, etc) was usually kept consistent between the two narratives as well.

The second thing that struck me about the way this sequence was edited was the symbolic parallelism between narratives. While shot length and camera distance operate on a technical level, Coppola was very deliberate in editing the two narratives to symbolically mirror one another.

When The priest reaches camera left for the baptismal oils, and then tracks camera right to put it on the baby’s face, the next scene is the barber, reaching camera left for shaving cream, which he moves camera right (camera tracks this motion) to put on assassin Willi Cicci’s face.

Similarly, the film cuts from a close-up of the baby, being coddled by his mother (and I say “his” loosely, because though the character was a boy; Michael Rizzi, the “actress” was an infant Sofia Coppola; the director’s daughter, and would-be filmmaker), to Corleone thug Rocco Lampone coddling his machine gun.

What this does in editing is establishes a subconscious connection between the two narratives. On one hand, Michael is in Church, observing and participating in a catholic baptism; denouncing the temptations of Satan. On the other hand, his hit men and assassins, operating on his explicit instructions, purge the city of any potential or actual competition for the Corleone family, in what is undoubtedly the film’s most violent sequence (perhaps tied with the Toll Booth sequence; where Sonny Corleone meets his fate).

Prior to analyzing this scene for the assignment, I had never noticed the symbolic parallels in the editing. As I was watching it shot by shot, it amazed me that I could have missed such an obvious and deliberate choice by the editor, but that just speaks to the effectiveness of the editing. Parallel editing can be clunky and fake, and runs the serious risk of expanding time to a satirical degree. However, in this sequence from The Godfather, parallel editing is used expertly and effectively to subconsciously link the two narratives.




Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit


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