The Godfather Trilogy 4K UHD Review: A Restoration You Can’t Refuse

The most written about American films in history have to be Citizen Kane, Psycho, and The Godfather. All are epochal in their own way, marking an era of filmmaking. But The Godfather is at once the most topical and atypical. It’s topical because it was the real beginning of blockbuster filmmaking, which in the 50 years since the film’s inception has dominated American filmmaking.

But it is atypical because The Godfather is the least likely blockbuster possible. It found mass success despite being personal, idiosyncratic, and following none of the rules that governed mass commercial cinema, then or now. Director Francis Ford Coppola struggled constantly to protect his vision of the film made. Ironically, what he struggled to get made was an adaptation of a popular but trashy novel that he elevated into high cinematic art.

The Godfather Trilogy tells the story of the Corleone family, Sicilian emigres in New York who are part of the mafia crime families. The story of the first film is about the great Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, welcoming home his son Michael (Al Pacino) who is a WWII veteran. Michael wants nothing to do with the family business.

That changes when a botched assassination attempt leaves the Don helpless. In the power vacuum, Michael is the only one who sees clearly. So he joins, and soon runs the criminal enterprise he’d spent his life avoiding.

This tragic arc runs from the superlative first film to the widely praised sequel. The Godfather Part II follows on from the Corleones’ move from New York to Nevada. The crime family moves from personal enterprise to impersonal, international corporation in an attempt to become “legitimate.” Themes of family that suffuse the first film are subverted in the second, where Michael’s adherence to his family values are undercut by his need to revenge for an assassination attempt. He superficially holds him family together while everything he does emotionally tears them apart.

The films pay attention to history, and The Godfather Part II is split into a dual narrative. Robert de Niro plays Vito Corleone as an immigrant who wants to do well, but implicitly understands the hypocrisies of the world he lives in. He knows “respectable men” get that way through parasitic destruction of their own communities. He becomes a criminal, but in his mind a better class of criminal than those he supplants.

Michael’s narrative takes place in the ’50s. The Senate began holding hearings about the American mafia, which features prominently in the film’s story. So does the Cuban Communist revolution which puts an end to a Mafia plot to essentially own their own country.

Both of the first two films in this trilogy are some of the best filmmaking ever accomplished. Which makes the third film a significant let down. Appearing in this release as The Godfather Coda, there are several significant problems with the third Godfather film. But more important than tonal issues and the indistinct period (it’s supposed to take place in 1978, but it looks a lot like the early 90s, when it was filmed) is that the movie is boring. The Godfather films follow a loose structure, with ceremonies at the beginning, and celebrations intertwined with murder at the end. The Godfather Coda would have been better suited to eschew that imposed structure and found a more interesting story.

And there is the problem of Sofia Coppola’s performance. Thankfully, Sofia has moved on to an illustrious directing career, making acclaimed films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antionette. I don’t feel cruel about decrying her underwhelming performance as Michael’s daughter Mary in the film. She looks good on camera but cannot read lines to save her life. Even bit players like John Savage, playing Tom Hagen’s son because Robert Duvall wouldn’t return to the movie, have more screen charisma. She does have absolutely amazing hair, which can’t be denied, but her presence in the film is a negative.

The Godfather Coda is a rather minor re-edit of the third film. It was released in 2020, and mainly has changes to the beginning, moving the story along more quickly. It doesn’t solve the film’s problems, and both versions are available in this collection.

The Godfather Trilogy represent the home video version of the latest restoration of this epic Mafia film series. There have been previous restorations of the films, including the 2008 restoration release. But there has never been a more beautiful home video release of The Godfather than this 4K UHD collection.

These films are known for their dark cinematography. Gordon Willis, the cinematographer on all three films, has been called “The Prince of Darkness.” But I do not think there has ever been the depth of contrast in the image as presented in this release. I’ve watched The Godfather films on DVD and Blu-ray several times, and have always found the images pleasing, but a little murky. Some of the scenes have been so dark I couldn’t really fathom what was going on.

This 4K release has revived the details of the cinematography without sacrificing the artistic intent. The film is still dark, but the contrast is much more pronounced. This is particularly prevalent in one scene in the first film. Michael is waiting outside the hospital, foiling an assassination attempt on his father. There are Christmas lights, and in this release they positively glow, where I remember them seeming relatively dingy in previous releases. But the next scene, when the police captain punches Michael out, the cop’s face is mostly in complete darkness. The details are preserved here, without sacrificing the artistic intent.

The first two Godfather films look the best they ever had on home media. The third I found less revelatory, though I might have been responding to the dull material more than the visuals. There are a couple of beautifully shot scenes, but it doesn’t have the verve or life of the ’70s films.

But for a Godfather, or any movie fan, this 4K release is absolutely worth an upgrade. The films have never felt so life-like on home video or looked so beautiful. The new video extras are decent, particularly on the film’s restoration, but the real attraction here are the film’s visuals. The Godfather is an inestimable treat of a movie, and this is the best rendition of it available for home viewing.

The Godfather Trilogy has been released by Paramount on 4K UHD and Blu-ray. The release includes five discs – one for each film, a fourth for the original edit of Godfather Part III, and a bonus disc. While the bonus disc is a standard Blu-ray, there are no Blu-ray versions of the films on the 4K release. The films each have a commentary track by director Francis Ford Coppola (for the original films – there isn’t a new commentary for Coda). The new extra material includes new video introductions for the films by Francis Ford Coppola. There are also new video extras including “Full Circle: Preserving The Godfather” (17 min), a short doc on restoring the film; “Capturing the Corleones: Through the Lens of Photographer Steve Schapiro” (14 min), an interview with the set photographer; “The Godfather: Home Movies” (9 min): 8mm footage of life on the set, and “Restoration Comparisons”, showing contrast with the restorations between 2007 and the current film.

There are several legacy extras from previous released on the extras disc as well: “The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t” (30 min), “Godfather World” (11 min), “Emulsion Rescue – Revealing the Godfather” (19 min), “…When the Shooting Stopped” (14 min), “The Godfather on the Red Carpet” (4 min), “Four Short Films on The Godfather” (7 min), “Corleone Family Tree” (1 min). The Behind the Scenes includes extras from the initial DVD release: “A Look Inside”, “On Location”, “Francis Ford Coppola’s Notebook”, “Music of The Godfather“, “Nino Rota”, “Carmine Coppola”, “Coppola & Puzo on Screenwriting”, “Gordon Willis on Cinematography”, “Storyboards – The Godfather: Part II“, “Storyboards – The Godfather: Part III“, and “The Godfather Behind the Scenes 1971.” There are also deleted scenes, which have not been restored and are in standard def. Rounding out the extras are the usual galleries, trailers, and other additional material.

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Kent Conrad

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