Obtuse Meaning in the Godfather

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Notes on the performances of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in the Godfather in the light of Roland Barthes ‘The Third Meaning’.

In Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Third Meaning,” he posits two levels of meaning in a film or photographic image: the first is the simple or informational level which simply tells you everything you can learn from the setting, the costumes, the characters, their relations and so forth; and the second is the symbolic level, which shows you the connotations inside an image. The example he gives is a still from a film by Eisenstein -- Ivan the Terrible. In the picture, two courtiers are raining down gold over the young Czar’s head. Barthes finds in the image not only the two obvious levels of meaning but also a third level of meaning, which he calls obtuse. It goes beyond the information of the scene and the communication of the scene into something complex and difficult to determine. Barthes calls this the obtuse meaning as opposed to the obvious meanings, which are simple or symbolic.

“OBTUSUS means that which is blunted rounded in form. Are not the traits which I indicated (the make-up, the whiteness, the wig) just like the blunting of a meaning too clear, too violent? Do they not give the obvious signified a kind of difficultly prehensible roundness?” The Third Meaning, Research Notes on some Eisenstein Stills, R. Barthes

In his second attempt to make clear his analysis, Barthes returns to the idea of the obvious meaning and uses example from another Eisenstein film, The Battleship Potemkin. In those images we see an old woman with a closed, upturned fist, which signifies her determination to participate in the revolution. Then he shows another image from the same film of two women with their hands over their mouths stifling a sob. What Barthes says is that this doesn’t distract from but accentuates the symbolic meaning, but then he shows another image of the old woman seeming to express something else, an obtuse meaning, something difficult to define, something that eludes obvious analysis. He says that this obtuse meaning has something to do with disguise and lack of intentionality. Things seem to be expressed even beyond what the person intends by their gestures. He even compares the two stills of the same old woman, the one where the image obviously signifies grief, the other where something more complex is communicated: “I quickly convinced myself that, although perfect, it was neither the facial expression nor the gestural figuration of grief (the closed eyelids, the taut mouth, the hand clasped on the breast): all that belongs to the full signification, to the obvious meaning of the image, to Eisensteinian realism and decorativism. I felt that the penetrating trait- disturbing like a guest who obstinately sits on saying nothing when one has no use for him- must be situated somewhere in the region of the forehead: the coif, the headscarf holding in the air, had something to do with it.” (R. Barthes) In the next image, the obtuse meaning vanishes leaving only the communication of grief.

I would like to look at some examples of The Third Meaning in the work of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone and Al Pacino as his successor in “The Godfather”. From the beginning Brando is shrouded in darkness, we see him from behind and before him is a supplicant who comes to ask for a favor. The obvious meaning is the information in the scene -- the father’s outrage at his daughter’s violation, his hesitancy in approaching the Godfather and so forth. The symbolic meaning is in the fact that the supplicant is the lower or lesser party and the Godfather is the king, they are symbolically separated. There is a third meaning almost immediately in the film indicated by the way Brando is seen gesturing in response to the supplicant’s request. Which makes us immediately wonder why he is so reluctant. We learn later in the movie, that Brando’s entire role as the Godfather fills him with deeply ambivalent,...
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