THE GODFATHER PART II
The Godfather Part II is really both sequel and prequel to The Godfather, a sweeping tale of the rise of mob boss Don Vito Corleone and the fall of his son Michael. A massive epic running almost three and a half hours, The Godfather Part II chronicles the American dream in vivid albeit dark colors.
The film ebbs and flows between turn of the century New York and 1958 Nevada, so a plot summation requires a little dexterity. In the pre-Godfather sections we see young Vito Antolini forced into exile due to a longstanding vendetta. Coming through Ellis Island, his name is changed to that of his hometown, Corleone.
As a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) attempts to raise a family and keep to an honest life, he finds circumstances force his hand into a life of crime. Joining with neighbor/small-time hood Clemenza (Bruno Kirby), Vito now takes on the local boss, Don Fanucci (Gaston Mochin) for control of the area. Vito is generally a good man, using his 'influence' to help those in need but not afraid of using the full force of his powers.
He returns to Sicily one last time for a final confrontation with elderly mob boss Don Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato). Vito took his whole family to Sicily, though given their ages it is unlikely that toddler Michael or baby Connie would remember. Perhaps if they did, Michael would see how he echoes his father.
In the post-Godfather section family head Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) faces a host of trouble. There are the minor problems such as his sister Connie (Talia Shire), now a bitter mob princess running around from man to man. Then there are major problems. Longtime Corleone caporegime Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) is furious that Michael appears to side with Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who is funding Frankie's rivals for control of his territory. Michael survives an assassination attempt at his home, and now he is determined to smoke out whoever is the mole working for Roth, whom Michael knows is behind the attempted hit.
Pentangeli is himself set up for assassination but the attempt is accidentally thwarted. Frankie thinks Michael sold him out, so now he's going to sell Michael out to the government. In reality, Michael's older brother Fredo (John Cazale) was the rat, though whether he was duped or not is a subject of debate. As he faces enemies on all sides, Michael's cunning and coldness helps him survive but at a high cost.
Michael's long-suffering wife Kay (Diane Keaton) takes shocking steps to ensure there will be no successor to Michael's bloody throne. As for Fredo, he like Roth and Pentangeli pays for his sin of treachery, with the cost being Michael's soul.
The Godfather Part II is more than a simultaneous continuation and remembrance of the Corleone family saga. It really is a story about family, particularly fathers and sons. We see how Michael is in many way's Vito's son. Both hold long resentments and enact cruel vengeance on those who injured them. It does not matter that one was a virtually senile old man or one's own somewhat senile older brother. It was their need to 'defend their family & family honor' that motivated their brutality.
Director Francis Ford Coppola curiously had Vito take Michael's hand after both his murders (Fenucci and Ciccio). I do not think it was intentional but one can see perhaps symbolically how Vito was passing on his bloody legacy to the one son he hoped would not carry on the tainted family legacy.
The film is absolutely fantastic about having you empathize with Vito yet recoil with Michael. We see Vito in many ways as a victim, particularly when he arrives alone and silent to America. As so many of us are either immigrants or children of immigrants, we can identify with Vito and the hope of a new life away from the burdens of the old country.
However, we see in The Godfather Part II the dark side of the American dream: the Corleone family did indeed find prosperity in America, but one built on crime, brutality and death.
The film is also a sly critique of capitalism. Note that Michael and Roth, these two mobsters who built their empire on crime, are sitting at the same table with industrialists who essentially rule Cuba. As the Revolution heats up we see only Michael realizing the danger his empire faces while everyone keeps dancing. Note that Roth and his partners metaphorically cut Cuba among themselves via Roth's birthday cake with a map of Cuba as the frosting. They are essentially businessmen, but whose industry involves criminality up to and including murder.
The Godfather Part II is exceptionally acted. De Niro affects Marlon Brando's raspy voice from the first Godfather and speaks almost exclusively in Italian. That isn't a distraction however, as DeNiro makes Vito a very sympathetic character: competent and decent who was basically forced into this brutal world. Gazzi and Strasberg were also exceptional as the emotion-driven Pentangeli and the cold-thinking Roth, almost balancing each other.
While all three were nominated for Best Supporting Actor (with De Niro winning), I am surprised that Cazale was not for his Fredo. It was an equally strong and moving performance. Your heart breaks for Fredo when he stumbles into his explanation as to how he ended up as Roth's stooge. In his mix of clumsiness, hurt, rage, ineptness but genuine sweetness and pathos Fredo is extremely sympathetic. You leave knowing that he did not deserve his fate.
Shire also excelled as Connie, going from angry at Michael to loyal to him. Keaton had a bravura moment when she confesses the truth about their lost baby to Michael. It's shocking and heartbreaking, Kay's pain and fury and desperation all exploding simultaneously. Robert Duvall too was strong though I think his role as Tom Hagen was diminished.
Now we go to Al Pacino as the Corleone patriarch. His performance is brilliant whether he calmly signals that Fredo's time is up or slapping Kay for destroying his dreams of a dynasty. We see Michael has destroyed what he insists he loves most: his family. That we can find even an ounce of humanity within Michael's now-dark heart is a credit to Pacino.
The last shot of him is simultaneously heartbreaking and chilling. As he remembers all his siblings long before he assumed power, we can see so much and so little in his cold eyes. Does he regret? Does he feel pain to now being the undisputed king? He is a sad and pathetic figure, alone and damned. Michael has reached the summit but still has nothing to show for it.
The Godfather Part II echoes The Godfather in many ways. Both essentially begin with religious festivities that mask nefarious goings-on. Both have the conflict of betrayal and loyalty at their center. Both touch on the struggle between doing what is right and what is necessary. It was necessary to wipe Roth out. Was it right to wipe Fredo out?
Every element in The Godfather Part II works: the performances, Gordon Willis' cinematography, Carmine Coppola and Nino Rota's score. If there is a quibble it might be that some might find the jumping between the past and present a bit jarring and/or confusing. Some may find the length a difficulty, particularly with certain parts that might have been cut without affecting the overall flow. I find those minor quibbles.
There is debate whether The Godfather Part II is superior or inferior to The Godfather. I am firmly in the former category. The Godfather Part II, this tale of corruption both external and internal, of the price of loyalty is chilling and tragic. The sins of the fathers do taint their sons, and sometimes what we do for our family may end up damning them in the long run.
1975 Best Picture: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest