The Godfather Part II is widely acknowledged as being that rare sequel that equals (perhaps betters) the original, a deserving winner of its six Oscars, including Best Picture. Those setting themselves to the watching would be well advised to start early as the film runs at a staggering 200 minutes. Apart from the need for an intermission (unless your bladder is stronger than mine) there is, however, no sense of time dragging; it captures your attention instantly, with the funeral of Don Vito Carleone and the crowning of Don Michael as the new Godfather, and when the film ends you still want more – thank goodness for Part 111!
The genius of this sequel is not only that it brings back to the screen everything that was great about the original; a steady and relentless pacing, a rich set of characters and outstanding performances, an emotive score, a series of surprising events and an emotional tapestry of joy, fear, love and hate. More than this it takes us beyond Part I by telling two stories simultaneously; that of Michael and his increasingly tragic journey into the corruption of wealth and power, and that of his Father Vito’s early life and the emergence of ‘the family’ as a crime force in America. Played perfectly by a baby-faced Robert De Niro (hard to recognise at first, but his voice and glance are soon familiar), Vito is a likable character, a generous rogue. He is a killer, and a person not to be crossed, but he operates according to an ancient code of Sicilian ethics, kills only those who seem to deserve to die, and has about him a benevolence that is somehow attractive – although we can never forget that this is the same man who had a horse slaughtered in the previous film (among countless other murders). By way of the interweaving of the two stories, Francis Ford Coppola contrasts Don Vito’s colourful life with the darker rule of his son. It is a contrast drawn out by setting, light, cinematography and score , and the comparison is an increasingly tragic one. Both men are powerful, successful in business, targets and victims and capable of brutal decisiveness, but where Vito draws people to himself, Michael is increasingly isolated; where Vito is a family man whose wife and children adore him, Michael, even when trying to save his family, repels them.
Of course, whatever their differences, Michael is what is his father has made him. In telling Vito’s immigrant story, there is something being said about both the potentiality, as well as the corruption, of the American dream (as an Aussie, i should call this the capitalist dream of the West). At the heart of that dream is the potent idea that anyone can succeed, including a penniless, orphan and uneducated migrant. But success in this dog-eat dog competitive environment extracts a price, which seems almost inevitably to involve some degree of corruption of the soul and character of the ‘man’ (and i use the gender exclusive term deliberately). Vito reaches for the American dream but when Michael has that dream in his hands it turns out to be illusory. Of course we might respond that the issue is that the Corleone’s suffer because their success is built on crime but the film implies that their story is analogical, that every element of American power is similarly corrupted; policemen, lawyers, senators, business.
This corruption extends especially to the masculine nature of its social structures. Women are kept completely in the dark about events. When business is discussed, they are pushed out of the study and the door is shut. They rarely ask about events and it seems they are largely unaware of the true nature of the families business. They are, metaphorically, kept in the dark although it is the men whose black business is conducted in dark rooms away from the music and light of the wider family. It is Diane Keaton’s Kay (Micheal’s wife) who eventually resists, aborting the male child of Micheal’s dreams and prayers. Whether this marks a feminist transition for ‘the family’ is yet to be seen (and seems unlikely), but it is surely significant in the light of the 1970s feminist uprising underway when the film was made.
Once again, so much more could be said. Godfather Part II was released in 1974. The fact that it remains so eminently watchable and relevant almost four decades later speaks for itself.