Yes, Robert A. Harris’s painstaking digital restoration of the first two “Godfather” films is stunningly beautiful. But the real shock is learning how badly Paramount has mistreated the camera negatives of two of the studio’s crown jewels — according to this American Cinematographer article, Harris found the negative for “The Godfather” “filthy and riddled with scratches, rips and tears, some of which broke into the image area; in some sections, parts of the image had actually been torn away. An entire reel (1B) had at some point been removed and replaced with a dupe. Scenes were even missing from the final separation masters because they had been made before the cut was final.” Under those conditions, a photochemical restoration was completely out of the question: the elements were too fragile to be run through any kind of mechanical device. (The before and after images above are from the American Cinematographer piece, and illustrate the work of the digital colorist, Jan Yarbrough.)
And this for a movie that’s not even 40 years old! People have the idea that film is somehow permanent, as opposed to the evanescence of a theatrical event. It’s closer to the truth to say that movies just linger a bit longer before they, too, begin to fade away.