A Series Review: The Godfather, A Three-Act Masterpiece

The Godfather trilogy is a cinematic masterpiece appreciated by critics and audiences alike. Everyone has already written about it’s technical aspects, it’s acting and the crew behind it. So, instead of emphasizing on the numerous positive qualities of the trilogy, this review will focus on how its epic, three act story is still being revered to this day. 

Each Movie to Its Own

While the Godfather trilogy has a large cast ensemble, it really is about the tragedy of Michael Corleone. It explores how his father, Vito Corleone, has rid his chance of a peaceful life in place of being the head of his mafia family. The tragedy is that despite his initial good nature, the first movie made it clear that his rise to being ‘the godfather’ is inevitable. The trilogy has to create a story centered around the dynamic character. It succeeds as each movie become its own act of the character in focus. 

That being said, the trilogy revolves around the Corleone family, specifically Michael and Vito Corleone. The plot recounts Vito’s escape to America; Michael taking up the mantle of the don of his family; and his family facing the consequences Michael has to face. By the time he tries to legitimize his criminal empire, he has made too many enemies and committed too many sins to turn back. 

Each installment of the trilogy represents an act of the protagonist’s arc, Michael Corleone. The first act details the incident that forces him to be the ruthless don of the Corleone family. In the second movie (Part II), the audience sees his struggle, as well as the confrontation of his rivals. It ends with a midpoint by a heartbreaking betrayal of his own kin. Finally, Part III shows the falling action of Michael suffering from his sins, leading to a climax where karma strikes. Like every good trilogy, The Godfather uses each movie as a separate act amidst a much grander story. It ironically follows the hero’s journey, but ends on a nihilistic note as the protagonist’s actions have led to his own downfall.

Brutal and Pessimistic

4 interesting facts about the production of 'The Godfather' – like how that  horse's head was actually real | Business Insider
(Source: The Buyer)

Though the movie was made during New Hollywood, The Godfather has a very brutal, pessimistic style. Unlike the operatic Golden Age of Hollywood that precedes it, the trilogy is violent and very subdued in its emotions. It’s a type of violence that is devastating and bloody. It is not simply profane and mindless as seen in modern blockbusters. The audience may feel discomfort when the characters face dangerous situations, as it feels spontaneous rather than scripted. Although the acting is less dramatic, the characters can nevertheless intimidate the audience with the subtle message in their voices. This is particularly seen with Al Pacino and Marlon Brando.

Indeed, in Marlon Brando’s academy award winning performance as Vito Corleone, he might just be the most threatening character in the movie yet. However, he never murders or tries to intimidate physically, neither did he ever over-act to have his ‘Oscar moment’. Al Pacino’s delivery as the protagonist is also daunting as the story revolves around him, and how he forces himself to be ruthless to ensure his family’s survival. Focusing on nuances, the acting is superb as it felt less like a dramatic play and more like a realistic footage of a real life mafia.

It’s Like Poetry, It Rhymes…

(Source: Paramount Pictures)

When you binge the trilogy, the movies have recurring scenes that can be noticed immediately. For example, an opening party introducing main characters; a failed assassination attempt of a Corleone; an intricate plot to kill off a powerful figure midway; a trip to Sicily to reconnect with their past that ends with a brutal death of someone dear; and a climax leading all antagonists being murdered simultaneously. These can be seen as narrative leitmotifs; connecting the three movies together via the same themes of betrayal, loyalty and fate.

For example, the trips to Sicily in each movie signifies a return to home and their roots. In the first movie, Michael was an American veteran and citizen who returns to his family home to lay low. But he is reminded of his ancestral home through the people (most notably Appolonia) whose tragic death only solidified Michael’s fate. Such a trip would encourage him to succeed Vito as the don. In Part II, a Corleone once more returns to Sicily, except this time to exact revenge; to prove to his family’s killer that he has succeeded despite his attempts. 

This shows that the plot remains the same throughout, but with different messages and meaning as each movie represents a different part of Michael’s life. A homage if you will. Although the scenes are a repetition, they convey the continuation of the story. These homages are important in reminding the themes that this trilogy holds. Indeed, although The Godfather relies on tropes, it uses them in different narrative contexts to differentiate its meaning.


In the end, The Godfather still stands to be one of the most influential trilogies in movie history, even if the third one is not as appreciated as it deserves to be. In its essence, the saga is the tragedy of what power and responsibility can do, even in an act between family. When it comes to the writing of a three-act story, there are few examples that come close to this movie series.

Written by Edward Wong.

Featured image by Hyperpix.