2012 poll rank: #31 (tied with Taxi Driver)
When director Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather in 1972, it was largely seen as one of the formative films in a new American independent cinema. Even though it was made within the Hollywood studio system - and featured Marlon Brando, an acting giant renowned for his commitment to "Method acting" - it was infused with the verve and violence that had become a trademark of American independent films like Bonnie & Clyde (1967). It also featured a wide range of actors who abandoned the studied mannerisms of Hollywood acting in favor of naturalistic performances, and many of whom were unconventional movie stars: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, John Cazale, and Robert Duvall were hardly anyone's idea of A-list celebrities at the time. In the process, the film became an enormous critical and commercial success, briefly holding the title of the highest-grossing film of all time (domestically) and winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Coppola almost instantly became one of the top directors not only in Hollywood, but on the world stage.
So when he began work on The Godfather Part II, everything was bigger, thanks to Paramount Studios giving him almost-complete creative control. The film functions as both a prequel and a sequel to the previous film, unfolding in parallel narratives taking place in different time periods. In the "present" (1950s), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is growing into his role as the new head of the Corleone crime syndicate, resulting in an assassination attempt at his house late one night. The conflict stems from caporegime Frank Pentangli (Michael V. Gazzo), who wants Michael to defend him against a rival New York syndicate supported by Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). However, Michael is working with Roth to secure a gambling license in Nevada, and after a trip to Havana, learns that his brother Fredo (John Cazale) was working with Roth and may have known about the assassination attempt. As Michael's life becomes more entangled, his relationships grow more estranged, to the point where his marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton) crumbles.
The film's other narrative chronicles Vito Corleone's (Robert De Niro) rise from newly-arrived Sicilian immigrant to mafioso don. Vito arrives at Ellis Island after his family is murdered by a Sicilian mobster, and years later, finds himself in a conflict with local Black Hand boss Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). Vito begins engaging in burglary after he is fired from his grocery job by Fanucci, and eventually exacts his revenge on both Fanucci and the mobster who murdered his family. Vito grows to became a distinguished member of New York's Italian community, allowing him to exert further influence and cultivate the fear and power that the Corleone name provokes.
Though The Godfather Part II was hardly the first sequel Hollywood produced, it was the first to utilize the "Part II" moniker instead of adopting a brand new title. By doing so, Coppola signaled that while he was returning to the same material, he was going to be going bigger and deeper, crafting a saga that explored family bonds and the lasting consequences of violence and power.
More after the jump.
The structural audacity of the film's narrative seems to threaten its clarity, especially since Coppola frequently cuts between the two storylines over the course of the film's 200 minute running time. Yet Coppola's purpose for telling both of these stories is to reveal to the audience how Michael's and Vito's ascents mirror each other. There's a potent symbolism in the way that Michael is repeating many of Vito's sins; their shared history of violence is presented not as a choice they made but an inevitability.
Neither Vito nor Michael wanted to become involved in business at first. Vito came to America to save his own life, and in the process to build a new one for himself. He gets married and has a son (Sonny), and he attempts to make an honest living at a grocery. But New York, for all of its proclamations of opportunity, only presents Vito with a vision of the life he left behind in Sicily. Here, too, are gangsters, violent thugs who use payoffs and coercion to flex their power throughout the neighborhoods. This is what Vito had run away from, and now that he faces it again as an adult, he chooses to fight. He's already entered the world of crime as a thief, and when he murders Fanucci in a stairwell (in the midst of a parade, a callback to Vito running from the sniper fire at his parent's funeral procession as a child), he's immersed himself into that life through revenge. Ironically, he becomes the very thing that he had sought to avenge: a gangster, treating those who respect him benevolently and those who defy him with deadly force.
Michael, by comparison, is introduced in The Godfather as the "black sheep" of the Corleone family. Instead of entering the family business like Sonny (James Caan in the first film) and Fredo, Michael chooses to enroll in college instead, and later enlists in the Marines during World War II. In fact, Michael would rather wash his hands completely of the business, reflected in his decision to marry Kay, who is not Italian. Michael was looking for a way out, but once Don Vito (Marlon Brando in the first film) chooses him as his successor, Michael assumes the role with trepidation. However, as Part II reveals, Michael has grown all too comfortable with the violence. Michael is heartbroken to discover that Fredo is involved with Roth, but when it comes time to take care of the matter, Michael makes the decision to have his brother "taken care of." And thus the cycle of violence continues, Michael planting both feet firmly in a world where the blood spilled is worth more than familial blood.
Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis frame these two storylines through images that mirror one another, tinting Vito's thread with sepia tones while Michael's is shaded with blues. But it's the twin performances from De Niro and Pacino that really provide resonance. At the time of the film's release, Pacino was coming off the success of The Godfather, the Palme d'Or-winning Scarecrow (1973), and an acclaimed leading role in Serpico (1973). De Niro, on the other hand, was a little-known actor, best known for his role as a dying baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and his small part in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973). Yet both actors were operating at their peak powers on this film (and would be the premier actors of the 1970s), and even though neither actor appears onscreen together in the film, their performances mirror one another. Where De Niro shows off steely nerve, Pacino simmers just below the surface, his countenance hardened by his actions and their consequences. As Vito takes matters into his own hands, De Niro hardly lets the weight of those actions show on his face. He's a survivor, a man willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive; that he can rise in power and wield considerable influence is simply a happy coincidence. Pacino and De Niro's performances are in constant dialogue, as if Vito and Michael were having a conversation across the continuum of time.
As Coppola demonstrates in The Godfather Part II, their lives are doing exactly that. Coppola revisits this story to show that Michael's actions as the new head of the Corleone family are not all that different from his father's; the sins of the past continue to haunt the present, and the vicious cycle continues unbroken. There will always be new blood to be spilled, new partnerships to be made, and new betrayals to avenge. The "land of opportunity" promises a clean slate, but it's stained with the dust of everyone who came before it. In Coppola's film, there are new fresh starts, just new versions of the same story.
On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" The Battle of Algiers (1966)