Kishore Karanam archive  

The Garden/Patio Scene from "The Godfather"

April 14, 2021.


Also seen in Film Companion.

There are very few movies that will change the way we think and watch the movies themselves, and The Godfather is one such film for me. I always talk about how some movies are fantastic but very rarely I do talk about how some scenes changed the whole movie and this is one such scenario. I've seen this movie three to four times, and literally every time, the garden scene between Vito and Michael stood out for me. I know almost every scene in this movie is perfect with compelling performances from the terrific cast but this scene was more than all that, this simple three-minute conversation between the father and son is hands down the finest in cinema.

Usually, every serious family discussion scene in the movie happens indoors showcasing the formalness thereby leading it to be more important. But this scene between Vito and Michael takes place in a garden that is completely out in the open with both of them sitting on patio furniture. Michael Corleone has his back to us on the left, while his father, Vito Corleone, looks away to the right. They are meeting to discuss Michael’s possible assassination from a traitor in the business. Though the whole discussion takes place in the garden, both Vito and Michael are seated at the edge of the garden and not in the middle—where there are rows of vegetables being cultivated —reinforces the idea that they are not in the garden casually but to go over a plan to keep Michael safe. The fencing encloses the garden and gives it an exclusive feel, and the lighting is gray rather than sunny and bright, suggesting the death that looms over both of them.

First of all, we get to see the mighty Vito Corleone worn down by age as we can see his hair being grayed out along with his skin wrinkled. Then the camera shifts showing us Micheal who's face is looking young with hair being black. Another main observation to be noted is how Michael's clothes are more formal and polished when compared to the dull informal wear from Vito suggesting that he has now retired from the family business. Then the whole mood of the scene lightens with Vito kicking off the conversation by saying that he started drinking more wine, and comes around asking about Michael's son and how he can read the funny papers at the age of three. All these moments along with the light background score with birds chirping shows the affection among them despite having an uncertain and dangerous future ahead.

Slowly as the conversation gets started the mood shifts quickly as the talk now suggests the disconnect between the both of them over the years. This whole fifty-second part of the scene is more powerful, and both of them being legends, took it to a whole new level. The beauty here is how Vito's and Michale's eye never comes to the contact, and this suggests their relationship in many ways. First, as part of different generations, they are constantly seeing things from a different perspective. Don Vito is still in the old habit of going over plans, and Michael has to continue reassuring him that he has already taken care of things. Lastly, there’s the possibility that Don Vito can’t look at Michael because he can’t literally face the reality that his son has become the new Don Corleone.

In the final moments of the scene, we can see Vito getting up from his seat and sitting closer to Michael, making the space between them significantly smaller. Even though Don Corleone stands up, he doesn’t have a strong presence nor much authority in the frame because his eyes are still looking down, and his walk to the seat being weak, which showcases his old age even more. In these moments the lighting is utilized tremendously, as, despite the fact that Don Corleone is closer to the screen because of where he is seated, his appearance is darkened, and Michael’s face is lit up in profile. The lighting naturally forces our eyes to focus on Michael’s face, making us see Don Corleone as a mere shadow, almost insignificant. Under the safety of the shadows, Vito allows himself to say, "But I never wanted this for you". The confession enables the scene to reach a higher level of intimacy without the need for light or eye contact because the words carry all the weight. With remarkable acting from both of these legends followed by terrific lighting work, and the perfect background score when Vito says "wasn't enough time" just made the whole scene a masterpiece!

The scene wraps up with Don Corleone kissing Michael on the cheek, giving a last-minute warning of the traitor, and then walking off the frame of the lens. Immediately, we see Michael lay down suggesting a son who was to free his father of all troubles, and also assuring the audience that he is now the new Don Corleone.

The Godfather will always be a once-in-a-generation movie for me along with the legendary Scorsese's Goodfellas. Both the movies are proof that when a perfect script meets a competent director followed by the finest actors, will eventually lead to a perfect film.