Sunday, May 10, 2009

"The Godfather" and "Phaedra"

As part of my private Marlon Brando film fest, last Thursday I watched The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and based on a 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. I was suitably impressed by this film which is, according to Wiki, rated as the second greatest film in American cinematic history (behind Citizen Kane), in the American Film Institute's list. 

The story, spanning 10 years from 1945-55, chronicles the fictional Italian American Corleone crime family, beginning with the downfall of the patriarch Don Vito (played by Brando) and ending with the reestablishment of power by his unlikely successor, the third son Michael (played by Al Pacino), a war hero and college graduate. 

The last scene brilliantly shows Michael acting as godfather to his nephew at the latter's baptism, his crime associates kissing his ring as if he were a pope. If the plot of the film traces the reluctant development of Michael into his father's heir, its theme is about the iron grip of our familial past. 

James Caan played the impetuous first son, Sonny, while Robert Duvall played Tom Hagen, an adopted son and the consigliere to the family. Diane Keaton, as Kay Adams, was Michael's girlfriend and, later, wife. 

*

Read Racine's Phaedra this windy afternoon on Christopher Street pier. It is also about an iron grip, this time exerted by the hand of fate. For no reason given by the play, Venus tortures Phaedra, wife to Theseus King of Athens, with a passion for her stepson Hippolytus. She struggles valiantly against the passion, and only confesses her love to him when she received news of Theseus' death. She is rebuffed by the prince, and then learns that the king is not dead but is returning home. Wild with guilt and fear, she allows her nurse Oenone to lie to Theseus that Hippolytus hit on her, and inner torture becomes also external tragedy. 

The construction of the play is brilliant, as the coils of the plot strangle any hope of escape. A series of confessions in the first movement, the action reverses itself when characters try to take back what has been said. Phaedra, a descendant of the sun-god, has nowhere on earth to hide from the eyes of judgment. Even in Hades, she will have to face her father, Minos, who judges the dead. 

The poetry, as conveyed through John Cairncross' translation, is dramatic and moving. The figure of the monster, first seen as proof of Theseus' heroism, recurs throughout the play wearing different faces, and speaking with intensifying alarm, until it appears finally as the devastating gift of Neptune. The horses that ate out of Hippolytus' hand kill him in the end. 

The French hexameter is rendered in iambic pentameter, giving such beautiful lines to Phaedra:

Since Venus wills it, of this unblest line
I perish, I, the last and the wretchedest.

and, after a long recitation of all the ways she tried to dismiss Hippolytus from her mind,

Venus in all her might is on her prey.
I have a fitting horror for my crime;
I hate this passion and I loathe my life
.
She has not done anything yet, but already feels criminal. Love is turned into hate, and life into death.

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