Yes, it’s the same old music that, as early as the time of the sequel, sent chills down our spines. Seeing the first two Godfather films one is struck by how many years have past and yet how recent their releases feel. We tend to associate the term “masterpiece” with the distant past as if time itself were a marker of its status and, for art that has stood the test of time, it is. But the paradox presented by Francis Ford Coppola’s accomplishments is how contemporary they feel while maintaining the stature of Dickens and Cervantes.
The Godfather, Part II picks up right where the first film left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is now the boss and has expanded his father’s empire to Las Vegas. But the term “godfather” will always refer to Vito, who is the Don against all other godfathers will be measured. This second installment, which in many ways is as much the apotheosis of American cinema as its predecessor, charts the expansion of the Corleone empire while jumping back to explain its origin.
It opens, in fact, before the events the first film. The year is 1901 and Sicily is a war zone, vendettas creating a never-ending cycle of violence. We see Vito as a nine year old boy at the funeral of his father who was murdered for disrespecting the local Black Hand. As is the case with many powerful figure, young Vito starts out scrawny and weak, and when the rest of his family is killed by the local Mafia chief, he escapes to America.
What spawns from this is a classic immigrant saga, and the flashback scenes are beautifully filmed with sepia tinted celluloid. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, Vito’s family name is changed from Andolini to Corleone (after the Sicilian town from which he escaped). A new name usually signifies a new life. In many ways, however, Vito will never be able to escape his past.
Movies like The Godfather, Part II and novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle remind us of how unfortunate it is that the historic quarantine houses of Ellis Island have been abandoned. A lot of stories past through there, many playing an important role in the shaping of America, as did the story of this particular Italian boy. On a technical level, Vito Corleone did achieve the American dream. The question of the Godfather saga is, at what cost?
A jump to 1958 contrasts the life of his grandson Anthony on his first communion. Living in his family’s new estate, he basks in the sun of Lake Tahoe and the riches from the empire built by his grandfather. Even Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) has changed into a ritzy gal with a playboy boyfriend (Troy Donahue), who is a loser and not Italian so, of course, meets with Michael’s disapproval. “You disappoint me,” Michael says to Connie, which is the equivalent of telling her she is out of the family. This is the final insult to his sister that has been abused by everyone, including her slain husband.
The ingenuity of the film’s backward and forward construction is that it demonstrates the differences between Michael and his father. Vito, we can tell by everything we know about him, would have balked at the thought of becoming a casino magnet and a ritzy life. His life of crime at least stemmed from the need to support his family, although he never gave his children the opportunity to see a different path.
In a broader sense, this illustrates the distinction between early immigrants and their American born children. A common dilemma for early 20th century immigrants was how to protect their family. Many found the answer to be forming gangs. Their children, on the other hand, became preoccupied with making themselves richer. Tellingly, in the first movie, Don Corleone broke down when he observed what his lifestyle did to his family. Michael doesn’t seem to care.
Further, Michael breaks his father’s golden rule that precipitated the conflict in the first movie. When seeking to take control of a casino controlled by the frail but powerful mobster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) he submits to conducting business to people who are involved with drug dealing. Even Michael’s snakey New York operator Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) advises him to steer clear of Roth and the Rosato brothers.
The Godfather, Part II takes time to further explore the characters we met in the first film. This is especially fascinating with the more hushed ones, notably Fredo. The intrigue of the dimwitted Corleone brother lies in his obscurity. His character and his emotions are here taken to deeper depths, including his possible inhibited homosexuality. This was developed more in Mario Puzo’s novel, but there are hints in the movie. When in the first film Michael asks him if he had been “straightened out”, the subliminal message is well understood.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Fredo, as he was always shut off from the family business. There is a revealing moment set in Cuba (in the pre-revolution years when it was run by gangsters), where he sits at a café with Michael, who is planning to expand his empire there. They share a laugh about the translation of banana daiquiri and, for that brief moment, they communicate like regular brothers. One wonders how close they would have been if they weren’t gangsters.
As mystifying as the writing is, it’s unlikely that Fredo would have been such a compelling character had he not been played by John Cazale. Cazale only starred in five films, all of them receiving attention from the Academy. This is an impressive record for an impressive actor who, tragically, did not live long enough to continue down his flawless acting path. Perhaps, the crowning moment on his brief career is here in his final confrontation with Michael when he bursts out his resentment over the way he has always been treated.
If this story is a tragedy demonstrating how far Michael has fallen from the war hero we first came to know him as, the flashbacks take as back to the origins of an earlier tragedy. When the film takes us back to 1917 in New York’s Little Italy, we are offered a chance to see Vito Corleone when he was one of many hard-working Italian immigrants in the ghetto without any inclination of becoming a criminal.
Now in his younger years, Vito is played by Robert De Niro in an uncharacteristically subdued performance. If in Pacino’s Michael we see a monster ready to explode at any moment, in De Niro’s Vito we see an unfortunate immigrant sadly giving way to a life of crime. He commits his first robbery under the influence of Clemenza (now played by Bruno Kirby). We saw in the first film that Don Vito would eventually become far more powerful than Clemenza. But when joins Clemenza in a robbery, Vito is both newly unemployed and wary of the corrupted society he lives in after observing the control the local Black Hand, the flashy Don Fanucci, has over the neighborhood.
Living by the immortalized quote, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer”, Don Vito rises as the ghetto’s new capo and rises to power. In time, he will come across some of the brutes that will later impact Michael’s decisions. Hyman Roth is such a magnet but, with his ostensibly sweet elf-like face and grandfatherly approach, he is a different kind of racketeer. Obviously, Vito and Roth didn’t trust each other, but operated on a certain level of respect. By the end, Roth also looks like he is remorseful for a life ill-spent. Clemenza would, of course, also play a part in Michael’s rise to power. But original actor Richard Castellano could not work out a dispute with the heads of Paramount so the character was killed off before the story started and substituted with the character of Pentangeli, who is almost killed in the same manner as Luca Brasi. And there is always Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who will never share the level of confidence with Michael that he did with Don Vito.
The scenes set in the first half of the 20th century have an almost deliberate levity to them, with a serio-comic approach to the immigrant experience. But the story of Michael Corleone is truly sad. By the end of the movie, the monster planted inside him has engulfed his soul. Pacino performs this amazingly, especially so in the scene where he confronts Kay (Diane Keaton) who confesses her plan to leave him. Look at how subtly Pacino trembles in rage and fury. But the most depressing part of the movie may be the theater-like flashback in the end featuring the Corleone family in happier days. Sonny (James Caan in a cameo), Fredo, Connie, Michael, and even Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) are all there. It is a dream-like idyllic scene in which the tragedy that would befall the family is far out of mind. They are all friends and no conflicts are even spoken. So romanticized a depiction of the family is this scene that it makes the shattering of the dream all the more effective. The moment Michael announces his enlistment in the Marines, Sonny erupts. For any happiness that graces the Corleone household is an extremely fragile sheet that can be broken with tragic consequences at the slightest provocation. End of dream. End of an empire.