The Godfather Part II Review

The Godfather Part 2 is the greatest sequel ever made and an astonishing achievement whichever way you want to look at it. It's just as beautifully made as the original film but also broader in scope and thematically richer. The sense of rot which informs The Godfather is placed right upfront in the sequel as we watch the rise of Vito Corleone intercut with the descent of his son Michael into amoral and paranoid isolation. It's a sad and somewhat despairing film from a time when Hollywood was much more prepared than it is now to put up with the creative decisions of filmmakers, even if it meant no crowd pleasing happy endings. Coppola's film came out around the same time as Polanski's Chinatown and the two films have similarities in both visual style and overall tone.

The structuring of the film is very ambitious. Given total artistic control over the film, Coppola decided to run two plots in parallel. Both stories begin with a religious ceremony, as do the two other films, and both take the characters on an emotional journey, albeit in opposite directions. We begin with the funeral of Vito Andolini's father, killed by the local Mafia boss in 1901 Sicily. Vito's brother has run to hide out in the mountains and the chief wants the young Vito killed as he is a potential threat when he grows up. Vito's mother begs for his life and threatens to the life of the big man, but Vito manages to escape before she is killed. He is hidden and taken to a boat leaving for New York, where his surname is confused with the town he comes from; Andolini thus becomes Corleone. He arrives at Ellis Island, enraptured with the vision of the Statue Of Liberty from his window and full of hopes and dreams for the future. A dissolve takes us to 1958 and the first communion of his grandson Anthony Corleone, son of Michael. Michael has taken over the family business after the death of Vito and is now a hugely powerful figure in America with the ear of government and interests stretching West to Miami and south to Cuba. But with power comes danger and he is aware that one of his supposed friends is actually an enemy who has the assistance of a member of his closest inner circle. When an attempt is made on his life, putting his family in the line of fire, Michael's paranoia goes into overdrive and begins to lead him down a slope that will lead to his ultimate, but entirely hollow, victory.

This structure is a total success in my view. The parallels between the two stories are suggestive and interesting, although I find the 1950s sections more engrossing from a narrative point of view. This is no slur on the earlier story however, which is beautifully designed and brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro as the thirty year old Vito. Required to compete with memories of Marlon Brando from the first film, he does a sterling job of evoking Brando's presence without actually mimicking him. He gets the body language and intense stare just right and suggests the contained power which made Brando so memorable in the first film. His walk and bearing gain confidence as his rise to power is gradually consolidated, beginning with minor criminal acts and becoming more significant following the killing of the local mob boss and small favours for friends. He gains his reputation through his actions and it's easy to be impressed with how soft-spoken and gentle he is. But the hypocrisy of his position - a respectable citizen whose position is gained and maintained through crime - mustn't be forgotten if we are to understand what Coppola is trying to do here. Vito Corleone is a monster of sorts but he is careful for most of his life to keep business and family separate. It's not that he's a better man than Michael, he's just more careful. He also lives in a different time, America between the wars, when crime was more glamourous and there was, rightly or wrongly, a perceived gap between the system and the criminal. In 1950s America, the gangsters and the system have become inseparable - as the Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (Strasberg) says proudly, "Michael, we're bigger than US Steel" - and the hoods are respectable citizens with links to the government, the security of big corporations and the approval of shareholders. Coppola hammers this irony home somewhat in the scenes at the Senate hearings on Organised crime, but the point is well worth making - as Michael says to the reptilian senator Pat Geary (G.D.Spradlin), "We're both part of the same hypocrisy".

The story of Michael Corleone which dominates the other half of the film is riveting and painfully moving. It shares more than a little in common with "Macbeth" - the King is dead and the new King finds himself unable to live up to the memory of his beloved predecessor. He commits terribly violent acts but there is no catharsis, only a sense of violence begetting violence until he is "so far steep'd in blood, that should I wade no further, returning were as tedious as go o'er". His family collapses under the weight of threats and his own paranoia - he destroys his sister Connie's relationship and is not happy until she comes home to him - and by the end he has committed what Claudius in "Hamlet" called "The eldest primal curse". The Shakespearean parallels are entirely apt here, this is tragedy at its most richly baroque and operatic. Al Pacino is remarkable as Michael, building the character from the optimistic and youthful war hero of part one into the self-destructive wreck that he is here. Pacino is adept at making an impression with silence and slight movement. As with his father, when he shouts it is terrifying because of the contrast with his dangerous stealth. He looks dreadful; drawn, tired and dead behind the eyes, with a half-smile that is like a death mask. Having lied to his wife Kay, he now abandons her to her own devices and imprisons her in the estate while he goes off to Cuba to expand the family operations. Her revenge is to abort his baby, and when he finds out he beats and threatens her. The comparison with Vito's loving relationship with his wife is obvious, but then Mama Corleone is a good Sicilian woman who knows her place. Kay is a highly educated WASP who is not accustomed to being kicked about by men and whose immediate reaction is to hit back. Michael uses and discards people around him - he sidelines Tom Hagen (Duvall) in favour of his strong-arm henchman Al Neri (Richard Bright) and patronises his brother Fredo (Cazale) into an impossible position. But in the end he is a heartbreakingly tragic figure; sitting alone on a park bench in the ruins of his life, spiritually drained and damned for his crimes. This is the corruption of power, but it is also Coppola's comment on the corruption of America during the previous thirty years. Replace Michael with Nixon and you have a fascinating subtext - what America could have been and what it turned out to be. Yet, the fact that we don't despise Michael is tribute to Al Pacino's stunning performance. If we didn't know he was a great actor - and there has been lots of evidence in recent years to suggest otherwise - this should be ample proof. In the last close-up, you can almost see through the skin of his face to the ironically grinning skull beneath.

Although Pacino and De Niro dominate the film, Coppola has again surrounded them with marvellous character actors. Robert Duvall deepens the character of Tom into an impotent advisor, seeing the way things are going but powerless to stop them. Talia Shire takes the non-character of Connie and begins the slow building of the woman into the awesome Lady Macbeth+ of Part 3. There are wonderful things from Michael V.Gazzo as the replacement for Clemenza, Frankie Pentangelli, a small time hood playing at being a big shot, and from Lee Strasberg as the Machiavellian Hyman Roth, whose mild manners and gentle humour conceal a heart of ice. But the revelation of the movie is John Cazale as Fredo, the middle brother who has been passed over in favour of Michael. Fredo's attempts to assert himself and create his own legend are so humiliating for him that you can hardly bear to watch the screen. But Cazale doesn't forget the inner strength which leads Fredo to his fate and he makes the character as interesting in his own way as Michael or Sonny. Loads of interesting performances in small roles too. G.D.Spradlin is exactly right as the foul Senator and Richard Bright makes a strong impression as the tough guy Al Neri. In addition, see if you can spot directors Roger Corman and Phil Karlson as Senators at the Organised Crime Hearings. Corman helped Coppola start his career and this is a nice way of saying thankyou.

The quality of the production is consistent with the high standards of part one. Dean Tavoularis works miracles again, admittedly with a rather bigger budget and more location shooting, but his recreation of a 1919 New York street is breathtaking enough to deserve special mention (and the shot where it is revealed in full was later, er, "borrowed" by Brian De Palma in The Untouchables. Gordon Willis works in a similar style to the first part, only more so. Since the film deals with the blackness at the heart of a man, it's appropriate that so many scenes should be shot with so little light. One or two moments are particularly exquisite - the scenes towards the end when Michael sits in his office like a hermit and the shooting of Fanucci where the light itself is part of the scene. Nino Rota's music is wider ranging too with the main themes given an edge of poignant yearning that is so right for the tone of the film.

There are one or two flaws here. For one thing, one or two scenes of violence have an unpleasantly gloating edge to them - although the murder of the prostitute is integral to the plot, was it really necessary to show the end result in so much detail. In a sense, I suppose the answer is yes if we are to take note of what ruthless people the Corleones are, but I suspect we knew that already. I also find one or two of the Vito scenes a little too lingering, largely because I find the wheels within wheels of conspiracy in Michael's story more interesting. But considering the achievement of Coppola in this film it is unfair to carp too much. He has made a sequel which takes the original and adds to it without simply repeating it, while at the same time daringly experimenting with narrative structure. It's a truly awesome piece of filmmaking.

The Disc

This disc is generally on par with the original although slightly less impressive in certain scenes of the film.

The film is presented in Anamorphic 1.85:1 and it looks pretty good. It's important to remind oneself of the lengthy restoration process by Paramount before moaning about some of the picture flaws. When I last saw this film in a cinema, the print was a disgrace. This DVD version has been cleaned up and is generally sharp and clear with good detail and contrast. I thought the low-lighting scenes came out rather better than they did on Part One. The downside is that some scenes contained a distractingly large amount of grain and there is a texturing to the picture throughout. There is also a little artifacting here and there. However, it's so superior to the previous versions of the film on home video that the problems with the image shouldn't put anyone off buying the disc.

The soundtrack on the disc is, again, a remixed version of the original Mono track into decidedly subdued Dolby Digital 5.1. Given that the surrounds are barely used at all, it's quite acceptable and it does perform the tasks of keeping the dialogue clear and presenting the wonderful music at its best. But personally I would have preferred just a cleaned up version of the original mono recording.

The only extra on the disc is an interesting and enthusiastic commentary by Francis Coppola. He doesn't speak quite as much as he did on the first part of the trilogy but what he has to say is revealing and interesting. He explains some of the plot as well, which might help anyone who, like me, has been a bit confused about who is doing what to whom. I think I have it worked out now and it's only taken 20 years. I found the commentary a little dry at times but its still quite impressive to have a director who can talk for three hours without being boring or repetitive.

There is a main menu which changes three times. The film is split over two discs to gain the best image quality and the break is in a sensible place after the killing of Fanucci.

A great film in its own right, The Godfather Part Two is damn near essential when put together with part one. It's an engrossing viewing experience which I can't recommend highly enough. The disc is not perfect but is more than acceptable given the resources to hand.

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