This film is named well: it cannot be extricated from its original more easily than an Italian boy from his mama. The key difference between The Godfather Part II and its predecessor is not in the tenacity of its direction, acting, or composition. In both cases, all of these evoke both the dim recesses of these men of brutality and the respect that they are paid. The difference is in what this respect means. Vito Corleone in The Godfather wielded old-world values against an onslaught of modern debauchery and evil appetites, healing families with violence and refusing to damage them with drugs. We believe in the Godfather, and trust his wisdom, and even lurch in our hearts when he takes a quaint death among his piante di pomodoro playing with his grandson. The respect we have for Michael Corleone in Part II is of a different kind. We respect his byzantine persona, at gun-point, perhaps for fear of our personal safety. The film is essentially about how Michael has failed to be his father, to garner real respect, and even to be truly Italian. The failure makes for a well-made sequel but was it necessary? It distorts the whole picture, as though Vito Corleone died for nothing.
The construction of Part II is famous but is it ever examined? Out of its 200 minutes, I would estimate that about 60 are devoted to young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), immigrating to New York and rising to his wealth and success, while the remainder focuses on his son Michael (Al Pacino) letting that success ruin his soul in the present day. One problem with the prequel segments is that they cut in unannounced and leave the present as a kind of dangling conversation to be reserved until some business is taken care of. They may increase our understanding of Vito Corleone’s life, but they do not increase the tension of Michael’s. Unlike The Godfather, in Part II I was consistently not sure what was going on, to whom, or why.
Michael’s dealings in Cuba are convoluted to the audience, though they are talked about with hushed significance. I was discomfited by confusion when Michael tells his partner there (Lee Strasburg) that an Italian made an attempt on his life, as that Italian, on orders from Michael after being told that Strasburg made an attempt on his life but before he tells Strasburg that it was the Italian, is nearly killed by someone who may have been ordered by Strasburg to fail to do so and says “Michael Corleone sends his regards” so that the Italian would think it was Michael despite Michael telling him that the hit he didn’t commit was Strasburg’s. Sure that sentence is confusing, but it’s no exaggeration: I’m genuinely still not sure who ordered that hit. I think Part II wants us behind closed doors, to see Michael ruminate three moves in advance on a game board he hasn’t even found yet.
But if this misinformation is intentional, then the comparative simplicity of the flashbacks is distracting because it lifts us from the veil of confusion into the Godfather’s nostalgic youth. By comparison, these events are simple to the point of meaninglessness. As De Niro is sitting with his young wife in their smutty apartment, smiling at each other, I’m still thinking, “Wait, so Michael said what, to whom, why?” We are never let in on what he’s thinking, or even what has happened. Watching Part II is like getting box seats at a Wagnerian tragedy and forgetting your opera glasses. Someone next to you has to remind you that so-and-so is someone you’re supposed to recognize.
Yes, I’m aware of the comparison set up between the messiness of Michael’s business and the comparative simplicity of Vito’s (though that was something we already gathered from the first film). Being confusing isn’t my main contention. Part II is a tragedy, more so because as in The Godfather we are shown very little outside the family. Their triumphs and problems are ours too. But this time, the family is so disreputable that this inside sympathy with the Corleones breaks down. Connie (Talia Shire) no longer considers herself part of the family and leaves her kids with mom (Morgana King) and only comes home when she needs money. Fredo (John Cazale) even sells them all out just by being accidentally angry and impudent. Even Michael never lets us in. If we were goers to a party on the Corleone estate and glimpsed Michael slumped over his desk on our way to the bathroom, we would not know less about his intentions.
Showing the formation of the family in the flashbacks accentuates the tragedy of their moral implosion. But showing Vito Corleone’s rise to power does not. His murder of an old mafia gang-lord, in a convenient scenario where the man has no bodyguards and no one hears the shots, does not help us understand what’s happening with Michael. Characters we know like Vinnie and Clemenza are shown in the past, but they are not characterized at all to buttress the experience of watching The Godfather – they’re basically Easter eggs played for a wink. In fact, despite a hoarse, understated performance of considerable tact by De Niro, the flashbacks aren’t really essential viewing. I imagine them as their own movie, and they just don’t amount to much.
But now I have a question. Is Part II too long, or too short? Whereas the appeal of Pacino’s performance is that he is able to bristle with intense dilemma (we can practically see his energy draining from around his sleep-deprived eyes), De Niro is never given the chance to make tough decisions. He is shown to wield Sicilian machismo like a trump card in a world where other men can’t get an erection, talking down to powerful men and watching as they yield out of respect to his moxie. But remember that this is what will destroy Michael: this pride and lust for power. It will ruin his life and his family and his spirit. He will become a hushed, suspicious beast, who no longer trusts even those most devoted to the family (he dismisses Tom Hagen at one point, as though his adopted blood excludes him from the discussion). At the same time that Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton) rails on him for succumbing to his Italian-ness, we are shown Vito making extravagant passes into greatness just by being blunt and brutal and uncircumcised. In the end, it seems like Michael’s only real sin was that he wasn’t born his father.
This means that it’s hard to make sense of the comparison between the two ways of life in Part II. Even as Kay becomes estranged by his passive machismo, should Michael have been more Italian, or less? Is it the world’s loss for no longer bowing to gang-lords who have good hearts? The flashbacks depict so little logistically in the construction of a mafia empire that they seem as enamored with the Godfather as we are, like this is what Michael imagines his father’s past to be and on which he now reminisces, as though looking for guidance that doesn’t exist.
If in The Godfather, Michael was a bright star dragged down by duty, a soldier first, here he is a prowling animal, lusting for power, like being so close to the ground makes him a better judge of it. What does he want? He says he wants the family to go “legitimate,” but in his mind this seems to translate to “untouchable.” He wants to rule gambling and never partake in it. Tony Saltana (Pacino’s character in Scarface) would call Michael a prick from atop his mountain of hard-earned cocaine. Unlike in The Godfather, where our allegiance to the Corleones remained unsullied by morality, it’s easier to agree with Saltana about Part II. When Michael is indicted for suspicions of criminal activities and bluffs to the panel of politicians, you can’t help wanting him locked up. After all, there’s no family to protect anymore.
Coppola has an incredible skill for atmosphere and this makes it very easy to love Part II on equal terms with its father, and resolve not to look for morals where it may be problematic to find any at all. But there is nothing in Part II that could be talked about at the length of the wedding scene from the first film, that miniature of the Godfather’s entire conflicted existence, which told us more of his dilemma than an hour out of his adolescence ever could. There is no reason for his parents to die horribly, or for him to slit the stomach of the man who did it decades later (this creates hypocrisy later, because isn’t that just exactly what Sonny would do, and what everyone was berating him for doing, and what the Godfather is supposed to rise above?). At the heart of Vito Corleone’s character was the ability to do any business so that his family didn’t have to do any at all. And if he got even one second with his daughter at her wedding, he could even be happy about it.
But recall that the wedding was a sham: Connie’s husband married her only to get in good with the Godfather. What Vito made he made on faulty ground. The separation he craved between the man he had to be and the man he wanted to be never really existed, and his family were always just pawns in one long life of debauchery and bribery and murder. This is not what the flashbacks seem to say – they seem to want us awed and full of mercy. But it is what Part II, even just by existing, proves above all else.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)
Mario Puzo (screenplay and book)
|Michael Corleone||Al Pacino|
|Vito Corleone||Robert De Niro|
|Constanzia "Connie" Corleone||Talia Shire|
|Fredo Corleone||John Cazale|
|Tom Hagen||Robert Duvall|
|Kay Adams-Corleone||Diane Keaton|
|Hyman Roth||Lee Strasberg|