The Godfather Part II - Better Than the First One? Wrong Question.
Updated: Mar 15
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Prod: Francis Ford Coppola
Written: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Music: Nino Rota
Released: Dec 1974
Running Time: 200 mins
The Godfather, Superman, Evil Dead. There are textbook answers to the question of sequels that are better than the original. The sequel of The Godfather, though, is a very different project to the first, engaging in something so unfathomably far-reaching and ambitious, a story of such epic proportions, that if it had gone wrong, it would have gone WRONG. Instead, we have a rolling, multi-dimensional, poly-era masterpiece. We must not compare the two as it does not make the prequel any less formidable (as is often the case with a successful sequel) but it is worthy of standing alone but also being recognised as part of the saga. A rare position and a lucky one but it seems to rather deserve it.
In the first review, tribute was paid to those who claim to not like the first film. Tribute in the form of contemptuous scorn and disrespectful suspicion. Here it will be the same. Once again if someone says it is too much for them, or they like simpler films, or have a problem with the violence, etc and do not like it for those reasons, this is perfectly fine. However, any folk saying it is just not any good are not being honest with themselves. It is a spellbinding triumph of incalculable dimensions with timeless honourable merit and standard-bearing assumed by its creators. So, if this is you, get some therapy, and another film review. You do not belong here. For the rest of you, let us begin.
Very differently we begin in Corleone, Sicily. We learn of the brutal instances that cause Vito to leave, alone and orphaned on a strange vessel, marked for death by a Mafia chieftain, headed for the New World. As he lands on what would become Ellis island, we see an understated but vital scene. Young Vito, a mute and barely eight years old walks in front of a crowd of fellow immigrants all staring at the Statue of Liberty. Vito also looks, but unlike his fellow boat-people, he is walking forward while looking up to the symbol of America while everyone around him stands still. The analogy does not take much figuring out.
Smallpox quarantined, alone, and scared, for the first time, in his small single room with a table and a bed, we hear his voice as he sings to himself.
Time leaps to his grandson, Anthony, many years later in Tahoe, Nevada, at the same age. The rise of the family under Michael (Al Pacino) has moved into politics, a naive senator tries to strong-arm. An entertaining piece. A series of events leads to a violent head, Michael leaves to find out who betrayed them and nearly cost him his life. Temporarily the illegitimate German-Irish lawyer and Michaels assumed brother, Tom Hagen is at the helm after being stepped-over in the first movie's climax.
Things take hold in Cuba, in a story meant to mirror that of a true Mafia event, The character of Hyman Roth, played by acting legend Lee Strasberg is painfully obvious in its basis upon famous Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky. A capable but mute bodyguard accompanies Michael everywhere as he weaves around finding out who betrayed them, who paid them too, and how to come out on top in both the long term and in the Cuban deal
As happened in real life, history decides the latter as Cuba collapses under Bautista as Fidel Castro takes power and throws the Mafia out., The traitor is revealed and Michael must act, but how he acts will be determined by actions he must control. Back home a wronged subordinate, manipulated by Michael's enemies, turns government witness to a senate committee (once again drawing from an event of recent history). Michael must also outwit the US Senate, treachery is everywhere and duplicity is lurking.
Michael uses his wit and cunning with typical aplomb to outwit and crush his enemies at a cost of maybe losing his family. His main betrayal coming from a source that troubles him for the rest of is life. He remains at the top and yet it is at a terrible cost.
As all this happens, the second unit story evolves. Young Vito played in breathless mystery by a spellbinding pre-embarrassment Robert DeNiro in post-WWI New York. For you young-'uns who see Bad Grandpa, Meet the Fockers, and Joker, you may wonder why he is so revered, and it is a good question. The answer, is probably more than anywhere else, evident here.
A young Vito, a grocery boy, is made unemployed by a Black-Hand (a particularly ferocious offshoot of the mafia) operatives and thus christened into the crime world by that often-occurring phenom in these movies, the life-changing chance encounter. This time is with a jolly but lethal neighbourhood tough called Clemenza. From here he rises, using his quiet viper-like strength and ability to listen and not react. He rises to the top of New York and returns to his home of Sicily to repay those who forced him out. If anyone has not seen it, they should check the deleted scenes on YouTube for a more detailed explanation.
The two parallels play together perfectly. The rolling camerawork of following young Vito across the rooftops of Little Italy as he pursues his quarry, interspersed with pyrotechnics and scenery from the Saint Genarro festival is something to behold. It shows that panoramic shots do not need to have half of Montana in the background and can even be poorly lit. All of the scenes of this section are dim and rather dusky and shot at close quarters. This is to express the claustrophobic nature of railway cold-water flats and tenement rows in early 20th-century New York. Somehow though, it has an epic feel too. In fairness, the cinematography of part II is way superior to the first installment, but that is possibly the way it is meant to be. The way a young colt of an experienced stud racehorse will have speed and strength its parents didn't, but all are remembered as fondly.
A lot more happens in this installment. As mentioned, Cuba falls. Then the act of betrayal at Michael's home is far beyond anything seen before, and the brutal slaying of an innocent prostitute simply to aid a blackmail case by the fearsome Al Neri (Richard Bright) is an act far beyond the romanticised broad-Brooklynese movie-star, ferret-faced behatted mobsters of the first film. One of the moral criticisms is that it glorified the Mafia (a word never uttered in the film) and it led to a backlash against this romanticised image of mobsters only killing other killers and raining gold on the innocent. You certainly do not feel this way at the end of part 2
It is full of crescendo-like scenes. The music of Nino Rota is used to explain for those looking away. The camerawork is ambitious, for example, a scene in a courtroom where Michael uses a defendant's brother to silence him, is often praised, but I have always found it clunky and out of pace. I think trying for too many cuts and bustling tension is a bridge too far in a movie that is all about subtlety. For example, Connie wants the children to leave the room, they ignore her, although they are so very young, just a glance from Michael shows his power among all who he rules.
Paradoxically, we are shown that Vito does it differently, he gives people a chance to not fear him Take for instance, a quirky little comedy involving a reactionary landlord of a friend of Vito's wife is another testament to Nino Rota and his score. With a different tune it could have been terrifying, yet here it has a flutey Italian jig playing, so it is taken lightly. Michael never has such a frivolous sound accompaniment. His interactions have the whistling background of deep piano foreboding and in one of the most depressing scenes I have ever encountered, he returns to his wife, who is sewing and there is no love left. He gives no one a chance and is cruel, particularly to his step-brother, Tom, who is loyal beyond question.
A very complicated movie that no-one could fully comprehend in one sitting. For the most part, there is no book to refer to (except for Vito's segment being part of the original novel). It deserves multiple watching, it is a towering achievement in modern motion-picture artistry that will provide food for all thoughts. At once it is both a soap-opera and a mystery. It remains never-bettered by imitators. This is mostly due to it has been, aside from the hilariously inferior Once Upon a Time in America, largely unattempted. Not being one to romanticise the past, it is daft to say it could never happen I truly hope it does as it would be some kind of film to watch.
Until that day
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