Wednesday, November 19, 2008
It may be bold to say this, but I believe The Godfather Part II (1974) to be the best American narrative film ever made. Even among its fans, many prefer the first film. But I would hasten to point out that without the second film, The Godfather (1972) is simply a well-cast genre picture. Part II's double-pronged storyline, with Robert De Niro playing Vito Corleone in his early days, and Al Pacino continuing his portrayal of son Michael, enriches and adds complexity to the story begun in the first film. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who cowrote the screenplay, fleshes out the family's travails by bringing his own experience as an Italian American to Mario Puzo's original story. His deft ability to enhance the Corleone saga with actual historical events further frames the saga as the ultimate immigrant's tale, and adds a distinctly jaded viewpoint to what it means to be an American. Thus the film, released in the Watergate era, the height of Americans' disillusionment with their country, is both timeless and of its time. The film begins in the 1900s, with a young and near-mute Vito Andolini, of the town of Corleone, Sicily, taking flight to America after his family has been slaughtered by local Mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio. In Ellis Island, the boy is mistakenly renamed Vito Corleone, becoming first in the family line in a symbolic sense. The story then jumps to the late fifties, where his son, Michael, happily married to Kay (Diane Keaton), has moved the family to Lake Tahoe, a place he hopes will serve as the jumping point for his goal of achieving legitimacy for his family. Coppola consciously parallels events in the first film to highlight the differences between the father and son. For instance, while we meet Vito, in the first film, urgently conducting Family business in order to enjoy his daughter's wedding, in the second film, Michael is eagerly exploiting his son's communion celebration to establish political ties with the powerful Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin). Though Vito is quick to consider the price he pays after his eldest son is murdered, calling for a truce, Michael seeks to incite infighting within his ranks, and mentor Hyman Roth's (Lee Strasberg), in order to pick through the remains and consolidate his power in the aftermath. Coppola also highlights the difference between Vito and Michael as he segues between the respective storyline for each. Vito is warm, and generally holds court with his caporegimes, Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea), at his kitchen table with his wife nearby. The increasingly distant and paranoid Michael conspires, sitting as if on a throne in a darkened den at the family compound, with only his closest bodyguards, Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui), present. Kay is never privy to his dealings, and often times even the consigliere, adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is left out of the loop. Vito's primary concern is always the protection of his family and his neighbors, as when he eliminates the neighborhood extortionist, Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), in this exciting setpiece that precedes the film's intermission: Michael's desire to protect his family is supplanted by his capitalistic desire to acquire power and control, vanquishing all of his enemies in the process, even if it may include his own misguided brother, Fredo (John Cazale). Coldly setting a calculated series of traps to ferret out the person in his Family who is supplying Roth with inside information, it is only on the eve of Castro's revolutionary victory in Cuba, New Year's Eve 1958, that Michael discovers who it is: After the intermission, Michael becomes embroiled in scandal, as a Senate committee starts to investigate his dealings with organized crime. He is ultimately exonerated, but his alienation from his family accelerates with the one-two-punch of Kay's request for a divorce followed by her revelation that she had an abortion. After the additional blow of his mother's death, which serves to bring his sister Connie (Talia Shire) back into the fold, the stage is set for Michael to retaliate against Fredo. Contrast that personal vendetta that propels Michael into ruthless solitude, with the one that Vito must exact to become the Corleone patriarch. Where Michael's fratricide dehumanizes him, leaving him a deteriorating husk of a man by the end of Part II, Vito's revenge on Don Ciccio is depicted as a necessary archetypal rite of passage. Vito must assassinate the man who murdered his father to truly become a man. By killing the patriarch that rules over the town of Corleone, Vito solidifies his ascension as patriarch of the Corleone family. It is said that Puzo, author of the novel on which the two films are based, said that if he knew both films would be so popular, he would have written a better novel. A lot of credit for the story's enhancement belongs to Coppola. A second generation Italian American, Coppola directed the first film as a gun-for-hire, but was sure to bring enough personal touches to give the film credibility. A pretty faithful adaptation, his influence was strongest in its strong casting of what were, until then, predominantly character actors. Choosing a decidedly ethnic looking Pacino to play the All-American boy was his coup-de-grâce. The Godfather Part II validates Coppola's instinctive auteurial talents. He was able to again cast an ethnic looking up-and-comer in a pivotal role by choosing the gifted De Niro for Vito. He was able to exercise greater artistic freedom by using a nontraditional story structure, and a roman-à-clef bent on historical events, to give texture to the story, deepening what was a commercially successful gangster story into a mythic family crime saga about power in America. For Vito, the story ends here, when we realize that the greatest price he paid is one which he won't live to see: the ironic alienation of his youngest son Michael from his precious family, the loss of his very soul, as the sins of the father visit the son. At the conclusion of The Godfather Part II, as he exacts revenge on all of his enemies, the diseased Michael looks significantly older than his years. Michael then recalls a simpler time that devastatingly foreshadows his fate in regards to his family, with his father's presence hanging over the scene like a ghost's: For more on the Godfather films, see: Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather DVD Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal Stills courtesy of Paramount Pictures.