Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (based on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale
Michael Corleone is a monster. What separates The Godfather Part II from the original is its lack of sympathy for its central character. In Part II, Michael, unlike his father, is an evil man. Where Brando’s Don was a family man, a man of unsuspecting warmth, a thief who had honour amongst his peers, Pacino’s Don is totally removed from humanity. He’s an undignified animal, who, rather than family or loyalty, believes in only one thing; “if anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
Vito Corleone, in the contained criminal world in which The Godfather exists, mediates his darkest recesses with a paternity. There’s a level of understanding there, something to identify and sympathise with. Michael is a character to be hated, even pitied in how pathetic his life of utter contempt is. Because of this, The Godfather Part II keeps us at more of a distance than its precursor. It doesn’t let us in and involve us as the original did, but it is equally disturbing and chilling; fully affecting in its study of power, resentment and the isolation they give way to.
For all its enormity The Godfather Part II remains simple in the aspects that make it great. Underneath the brick for brick authenticity of little Italy, the atom perfect period detail of 1910’s New York; underneath Nino Rota’s sad yet gothic score which plays like a musical eulogy, and Gordon Willis’s shadowy photography which burrows into the blackest corners of its character’s minds, Part II is defined by intriguing plot, and clearly drawn personalities.
The film is both a prequel and a sequel, splicing two stories together; the humble origins from which Vito (Robert De Niro) would procure his power, and the obsession with that power 40 years on from the his heir, Michael (Al Pacino).
Both stories are power struggles, the proletariat Vito battling the domineering Don Fanucci on New York’s lower east side, fighting to support his growing family in a neighbourhood suffocated by extortion, while Michael’s story resembles a series of entwined chess matches, looking to expand his empire in Nevada and abroad whilst also trying to unearth the traitor who made an attempt on his life. Deceit acts as the pawns in Michael’s complicated game, subtly cross-examining two feuding associates, his fiery New York comrade Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) and the ailing but wise Hyman Roth, the consummate underworld businessman (Lee Strasberg).
As absorbing as the treachery and puzzle piecing of the plot is, the heart of the film lies elsewhere. Where Vito fights his battle for his family, Michael fights in spite of his. The genius of the concurrently told stories is it allows a point of contrast, an augmentation of Vito’s steely warrior and Michael’s blackened kingpin slipping into total loneliness.
There is a wonderful moment where Michael, upon returning from his business ventures, snaps in anger, an image which fades into the slim figure of his father some 40 years earlier, looking deeply at his child. The shift encapsulates the difference in the men. Both are criminals, capable of awful violence, but where we feel unsafe and lost with Michael, there is a sense of security around Vito, a measure of control, a fatherly ubiquitousness. The film’s bloodiest moment is reserved for Vito’s hands, he is a man who kills, his danger is never underestimated, but we feel it’s for the greater good. Michael’s power flexing feels like an exercise in something more selfish, something more malignant and cold.
Both performances are full inhabitations. Pacino’s icy stare is unrelenting. He’s the un-dead with his permanent, lifeless gaze. There’s something human missing, but the wheels are always turning, those inherited instincts always in practice. Pacino is wonderfully nuanced in the measured demeanour of Michael, and equally powerful in his bursts of viciousness, his malevolence worn in the creases of his face.
De Niro is just as evocative. His role is the more economical; the power of his work is in his presence. He seems to tower effortlessly, there’s a wisdom and auspiciousness about his man which allows us to place a complete confidence in him; something innate in his aura.
Michael’s devolution is perhaps best seen in the family around him. Robert Duvall is again terrific as the intelligent and invaluable Tom. His struggle is in that he’s loyal to a fault, aware that the world he’s found himself in is increasingly toxic, yet he can’t help but feel obligated to it.
Diane Keaton as the wife, Kay, is at once valiant and desperate. The weight of the marriage’s implosion falls on her with Michael too occupied to notice. Without her affections there is a chill which runs through the film.
The most stirring of the supporting performances is John Cazale as Fredo, the weak link in the Corleone men. His plight is the saddest, the most recognisable in his pining for any fleeting moment of recognition. Cazale’s performance is so anguished, scratching for purpose, longing for the mere acknowledgment of his younger brother who has completely bypassed him in every respect.
These are the emotions which so powerfully permeate the film. The Godfather Part II is a tragedy, a sad and painful tale of loss. It’s heartbreaking in its rendering of an alienated mind. The film’s coda, a flashback to where all the Corleone children crowd a table, is the film’s greatest lament. There was a time when Michael wasn’t so fated, when there was hopefulness and innocence. The Godfather Part II hurts us in observing how far a man can fall.