Director: Francis Ford Coppola (USA). Year of Release: 1974
Corleone, Sicily, 1901. The funeral recession of Vito Corleone’s father, killed for getting on the wrong side of the local mafia boss. Vito is the only family member accompanying his mother. His brother Paolo has taken to the hills, threatening revenge and his father is obviously there in body only. Suddenly shots ring out. Someone shouts out: “they killed the boy!” they killed Paolo!”
Vito’s mother goes to the boss pleading that he now leave Vito alone. The boss refuses, using the irrefutable logic that although he is puny and dumb now, when he gets older he will try to revenge his father’s and brother’s murders. The boss’s men kill Vito’s mother and local villagers smuggle him out of town. Soon, the nine year old Vito is alone at the reception desk of Ellis Island.
The Godfather Part II intersperses the story of how Vito became Godfather with a continuation of the story told in the first Godfather film about Vito’s son’s Michael’s rise towards power and personal isolation. I think that it is only partially successful with this structure. For a start, Michael’s story is given maybe 3 times as much airtime as that of his father. More importantly, just as you are getting to an interesting point in one story, you jump unnecessarily to something else entirely.
On balance, this may have worked better as two separate films, but both stories are compelling. As Vito arrives penniless in New York, he gradually wins influence by a combination of charm and brute force. He wins support by fighting corrupt landlords [True story: I once shared a flat with someone who claimed that his father was a “Sicilian businessman” and that the Mafia was at heart an organisation to protect the working class. He may well have watched The Godfather II more than once].
Meanwhile Michael’s rise to power includes a visit to pre-revolutionary Cuba. By now Senators are fully in his pocket, and a few accompany him on his trip to set up luxury hotels for rich US-American tourists. Unfortunately, Castro’s rebels attack in the middle of their visit. The US politicians and dignitaries flee to the embassy, but not all of them make it out in one piece.
This sounds a lot more exciting than it comes across in the film. Particularly the Cuban section is disjointed, and you don’t really get a sense of who is doing what or why. The first half of the film is a series of disparate incidents, each of which is interesting of itself, but it’s a bit difficult to discern what each scene has to do with the rest of the film. If we weren’t watching “One of the Best Films Ever Made (TM)” you might ask why this all feels quite so incoherent.
After the Cuba scene we see text saying “INTERMISSION”, though thankfully this evening we went straight to the next scene (we’d already watched the whole of the first Godfather film, and bellies were starting to rumble). Which was as well, as immediately following the intermission, we have two of the best passages in the whole of the Godfather Trilogy,
On the one hand, Vito’s rise to power in 1917 New York becomes more tangible. There is a technically brilliant scene where he walks along the rooftops as a parade goes past below, following the local mafia don, who he knows he must kill if he is to gain any serious influence. It is a remarkable scene which shows a glimpse of what Robert de Niro would produce in later films.
Meanwhile, it’s the 1950s and Michael is testifying before a Congressional hearing which looks remarkably like reportage that we’ve seen of the McCarthy hearings. Although Michael by now is Thoroughly Evil, we are drawn into hoping that he will somehow get off, although the prosecution is about to produce a witness who can testify without doubt with enough evidence to send him down for life.
It feels like we’re close to the end, but this is a Godfather film, so we’ve got a long way to go before we finish yet. Loose ends are tied up one by one, usually either by people being bumped off, or being encouraged to take one for the team. As this all happens, Michael sits along like Lear or Macbeth, desperately alone, surveying all that he controls and how little it really matters, especially now that the trophy wife has finally had enough and left.
The film, following Michael’s thought process, now looks into the past, from footage of Michael as a child waving from a train in Sicily to a family meeting just before he signed up for the Marines. In particularly his brother Sonny ridicules him for wanting to have principles. In this scene, we see exactly how far and how imperceptibly Michael has moved since the opening scenes of the first film.
It is faddish to say that the Godfather Part II is better than the original. I don’t believe this, largely because in the first half it loses its way a little. But comparing it to a sure fire classic is a little unfair. It’s way better than most films on offer at the moment, or at most moments.