The opening scenes of The Godfather Part Three, (Coppola, 1991), we see the family compound in ruins on a grey wintry day. The lighting is dark and depressing and depicts the nature of what has passed and what might be to come. Something sad has occurred. You need not have seen the previous two films to have some idea of the weight and brevity of the narrative. If the film makers had chosen to shoot that opening scene of the flooded and derelict family home on a bright sunny day how would the audience have known that some form of change has occurred? A family home bathed in sunlight implies happiness and family togetherness. The darkness and brooding cold of the shot tells us that the extension of the narrative that will make up this new film comes from a time of depression and of obscurity for the Corleone family.
The opening scenes of The Godfather Part Three also highlight the importance of setting as a way to drive and develop the narrative. The family home is in ruins. It is a grand and once luxurious compound that has fallen into decay and abandonment. The audience is aware from the start that the family, the central premise of the whole trilogy, has fallen and broken. Love and togetherness, the strength of the family unit to support and unify the goals of the individual members has been left to ruination and rot. The film’s narrative is therefore still about family, but as a broken one with a destructive past.
Once the location changes to New York City, the arena of the church illustrates the social position of the family and their power. The Cathedral is tall and grandiose, steeped in tradition and history. It is the defender of the family. Yet, its insertion at this point of the narrative sets out quite clearly that the story will involve the fractured family and its involvement with the church. It poses the question, what are evil gangsters trying to achieve through the involvement with the church, and moreover, what is the powerful Roman Catholic church doing getting involved with the mob? The setting smacks of hypocrisy, and therefore intrigue. The audience is now interested in the story that is to come, awaiting the inevitable conflict that the collision of these two worlds will present. If the opening of this film had been set in Michael’s place of work or his home, the premise of the coming story would have been entirely different. The overall setting of the film does not overwhelm the characters, but it does model our understanding of the film and our perception of those character’s goals. It emphasises the narrative and the highlights the nature of the people we are dealing with.
Contained within this setting, and illuminated under its soft ominous lighting, the characters act in a certain way. They express themselves, talk, and move in a deliberate manner, designed to add to the overall effect of the film. Michael is solemn. He is grey and his face is lined and drawn. He does not smile, which is a surprise because one would expect him to be happy at being awarded the highest order of the Roman Catholic church. There is a deep and sombre mood created by the action. The pace is very slow; no one moves quickly and the dialogue is delivered with a resounding respect and weight. During the opening sequences we see other characters entering with the same degree of slowness and respect; but when we see Kay entering the scene, the movements and expressions on the faces of the characters changes to one of warmth and greeting. Has she has been away? Is she possibly the cause, or effect, of the family break-up. She is the mother, returning to the family in a church under the eyes of God, and her reception and greeting is positive and warm. Michael, by contrast is impassive and a solitary person within a crowd.
Had these characters been quick to move, happy and joyful, would the audience have had any sense of the respect they hold for the institutions of the church and family? Would there have been any sign that the story might be one of guilt and repentance? How could have Michael felt the pain of his own evil in front of God if he was happy and flippant? Would the audience have believed the premise of the film’s set up?
Add all these elements together: lighting, setting, character expression and movement; the set up of a deeply passionate and complex family saga is laid out before us. The film continues to use soft and shadowy lighting as a motif for the battle between light and darkness that Michael fights up to his death; the setting of home and church continue to contrast with the violence and brutality of their lifestyles and the characters move and express themselves throughout the film in a way that tells the audience that they are serious, deep, brooding people with a weight and burden of guilt upon their shoulders.
There are other elements of mise-en-scene that contribute to the development of the film. In 1492, The Conquest Of Paradise, (Ridley Scott, 1992), the use of costume and props tells the audience straight away that the film will be set in authentic historical terms and remain faithful to the time and world that the events of the story take place. Had the film makers clothed the actors in modern clothes and given them a modern yacht in which to sail across the ocean, then the audience would have understood that the premise of the narrative was for the film to be a modern interpretation of the famous story. We know that the adherence to historical authenticity will probably mean that the film will be a drama. However if the film makers had substituted a mobile phone for a messenger on horseback, the audience might well be right to expect a comedy.
The different classes of people in renaissance Spain are illustrated by the costumes. The wealthy church and state are dressed in thick clothes, bespeckled with fine metals and jewellery; that is how the audience knows they are the governing powers and not the less influential middle class or the powerless peasants. The main antagonists of the film wear darker clothes, blacks and greys, and those clothes are often made out of leather which itself is a statement about control, power and wealth. Leather is also associated with darkness or rebellion as any modern day Hell’s Angel will tell you. The make-up used in the film adds to the characterisation of the actors; the hardship of the poor, the dirt and the premature ageing is added to the actor’s faces to tell the audience what sort of lives they lead. In contrast the wealthy aristocracy is well groomed, clean and obviously comfortable.
As the sailors cross the ocean they suffer from malnutrition and exposure to the sun. Here, all the character’s suffer irrespective of their station in life. Their clothes fade and become travel worn, and the make up is used to show that all men are equal when exposed to the elements of nature. On their voyage the deterioration of the costumes and the physical state of the characters drives the temporal elements of that part of the narrative. They travel into progressively warmer climates over a period of time, and this is shown in the aforementioned state of their appearance.
However, when they land in the New World all the characters are dressed in formal dress. This stresses the institutions and civilisation they represent. They do not claim an empire in the name of God and the monarchy of Spain in torn loincloths because that would detract from their purpose, which is to officially impose their world over the new lands. Here too, the costumes of the native islanders contrast strongly with the official regalia of monarchist Spain, exemplifying the differences in cultures and social codes of the two worlds.
Often it is the lack of costume that can drive the narrative. Earlier in the film Columbus does his penance in a cold monastery without shoes on his feet. This lack of costume (the shoes) emphasises his hardship and suffering, and tells the audience more of the morality and nature of that society.
The film is shot is an expansive and breathtaking manner. The action contained within the frame captures the epic nature and significance of the story. There is a sense of a huge wide world that exists out there to be discovered. Its colours and people, its magic and brutality are all out there, but often are not in the shot. What is in the shot is the implication of such potential. When Columbus sits on the shore with his son and explains to him his theory of a spherical planet, we do not see the adventure to come, we see only a disappearing ship and the flat ocean. Everything else in our mind’s eye is left out. The fall of Castile was the result of a bloody battle, and while the rest of the city was being looted and overrun the film only shows us symbolic gestures of the riots and capture of the city, for example the destruction of the Mosque. We see the congested nature of the streets, but what has been contained within the frame is merely enough to show us what is happening, without showing us everything that is happening.