The Godfather Part II: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro redefines screen acting with their astounding performances in Francis Ford Coppola’s ultimate American epic

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II(1974), starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Lee Strasberg, is an extraordinary continuation to the director’s magnum opus, The Godfather(1972). In many ways, the film is even better than its predecessor, and marks the height of auteur-driven  New-Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.

The Godfather Part II begins in Sicily, with the murder of Vito Corleone’s father, mother and elder brother by a local mafia don. The film ends with Vito’s younger son, Michael, killing his older brother Fredo. Earlier in the film, we get an image of an orphaned Vito, as a 9 year old in the year 1901, sitting alone in a small room overlooking the statue of liberty in New York.  He was orphaned for no fault of his, and he now finds himself alone in America, an alien land, and he tries to cheer himself up by singing an Italian song. Ironically, the final image of this film is of his son, Michael, in the year 1959, and now one of the most powerful men in America, sitting alone in his home in Nevada. At this stage of his life, he’s also pretty much an orphan like his father- having lost his parents, brothers and his wife; the only difference being that most of his loss is his own doing. These contrasting images sums up Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather Part II; it is one of the greatest American films ever made, perhaps even the greatest. The saga of the Corleone family that started out as blood feud between clans in a small town in southern Italy has spread itself to the American West, and has now come to involve fratricide within the clan.

Coppola had already set a strong base for this tale in his first Godfather film by using Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism. And in this second film, he takes it even further, both thematically and stylistically. Part II is classical like its predecessor, but it’s also slick and form breaking in its narrative structure. The film is divided into two time frames; one starting from 1901 to the 1920’s, and the second set in 1959-60. Each one has its own color scheme, its own pace and musical motifs. At the end of the first Godfather, we saw Michael becoming morally corrupted; in this film the corruption is taken to its logical and agonizingly tragic conclusion. The first film, in-spite of it being a polemic on gangsters and capitalism, was a warmer film that romanticized the lead protagonists. They came across as heroes more than villains, as everything they did was supposed to be for the preservation of the family. The second film is much colder, and much more slow-paced relative to the first. The characters are much much more darker, showing them as the monsters they are.

First story in the film relates to Vito Corleone’s rise in the early part of the 20th century. We see how an orphaned Vito, who lands up in the little Italy neighborhood of New York, struggles to make a living for his family, first legally and then illegally. His legal job is taken away from him due to the interference of the local Mafia Don, Don Fanucci. It’s an echo of what happened to him in Sicily, where he was orphaned by Don Cicio: who killed his entire family. After losing his job, Vito falls in with the gang of Clemenza and Tessio, who indulge in stealing and selling of guns, But, Don Fanucci interferes in his life there too, demanding a cut from their earnings. Vito refuses to bow down to him anymore and brutally murders him, thus eliminating that threat for ever. After Fanucci’s death, Vito’s power continues to grow and so does his family. Vito grows in power and stature to become the Don of the locality, and in time, he returns to Sicily and kills Don Ciccio, thus avenging the murder of his parents. Vito Corleone was played by Marlon Brando as an old man in the first Godfather, and it is considered one of the greatest screen performances ever. So, any actor who would have been cast as the younger Vito in Part II would have been criticized for falling short. But Robert De Niro steps up to the challenge and delivers an extraordinary performance that does not mimic Brando, but convey the essence of Brando’s performance brilliantly. De Niro’s casting and performance is  also a tribute to Coppola’s skill at being a great Actor’s director. De Niro’s performance has far more range than Brando’s in the first film, because Brando was not called upon to do anything overtly violent or cunning in the first film. He was mainly portrayed as a lovable, benevolent patriarch who loves his family to death. Here, the ‘Killing of Fanucci’ sequence shows Vito at his cold, calculating and murdering best, and De Niro’s transformation from a gentle, soft-spoken, family man to the cold-blooded killer is awesome. Where De Niro falls short is in generating a mythic aura around Don Vito, which comes very naturally to Brando, because of his own legendary status as an actor and star. That apart, De Niro’s performance is one o the most original works of acting in movies- especially since he’s playing a violent gangster- that hardly has a precedent and  that’s hardly ever been replicated by anyone else, perhaps not even by De Niro himself.

Vito’s son, Michael Corleone, is one of the most fascinating characters in movie history, and Al Pacino’s performance is one of the greatest ever. It’s certainly Pacino’s best. Michael is a very difficult role for any actor to pull off, because he is so tightly coiled: he does not externalize his emotions much and a lot of his actions happens inside his mind. Pacino was brilliant in the first Godfather: that performance was a masterpiece of ‘modulation’, where he played the transformation of the character from a fresh-faced, idealistic college kid\war hero to a hardhearted mafia don. In the second film, he has an even difficult task to accomplish; because, as opposed to the first one, where he had an arc to traverse: of a good guy becoming bad, here, he starts out as an already corrupted person who is teetering on the edge of good and evil, and who may fully go over to the dark side with a slight nudge from destiny. And it isn’t just a slight nudge that happens, destiny deals one big blow after another on Michael as he recede further and further into darkness; to the extend that, by the final moments in the film, he’s not human anymore, he’s just a dark silhouette, a zombie. The first blow to Michael comes in the form of an assassination attempt on him (and his wife) in his home. He realizes that it was his father’s friend and his (would be) business partner, Miami gangster Hymen Roth, who was behind the assassination attempt. That’s not all, he has an even bigger blow waiting for him, as he finds out that his own brother,  Fredo, was the traitor in the family who facilitated that attack. That really breaks his heart and he distances himself from his brother. But he somehow takes these two betrayals – from friend\father-figure and brother – in his stride and goes on to beat his adversaries that comes in the form of  senatorial investigations into the workings of the Mafia.. But then comes the final blow that completely breaks him: the betrayal of his wife, Kay, who aborts their child, as she wants all this mafia stuff to end. The killing of his unborn son by his wife is the last straw that pushes him over the edge. The man who self-righteously believed that everything he has been doing was for protecting his family is shocked at the sight of his own wife becoming a part of the family’s destruction. His moral corruption is completed with the death of his mother; with her out of the way, he decides to kill his brother along with his other enemies. In an act of blind vengeance that serves absolutely no purpose, his enemies who have become impotent and are absolutely no threat to him now (including Fredo) is ruthlessly killed off one by one. The murder of Fredo is particularly chilling: Michael coldly watches from his boat house as Fredo, who’s reciting  ‘Hail Mary.,….’ , is shot dead by his henchman. In that moment, his transformation from man to devil is complete. The prince of the family who was this great hope of his father –  who would some day become Senator Corleone or Governor Corleone – is now officially the Prince of Darkness. And Al Pacino kills it here, with a performance that’s terrifying in its stillness and serenity. I wonder where these qualities disappeared in his performances after a point in time, when he would trade in subtlety for over the top actorly theatrics. This was the film for which he should have won the best actor Oscar, and not Scent of a Woman(1992), for which he would win his lone Oscar; that was more of a lifetime achievement award.

The Godfather Part II ends with a sort of Coda, which connects both the time frames. This big scene set in the year 1941, finds a young Michael surrounded by his family members, many of whom are now dead, some killed by Michael himself. The occasion is Vito Corleone’s birthday and the family has organized a surprise birthday party for him. It’s also the day after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. But everybody in the family is laughing and chatting, waiting for the big Don to arrive. What’s happening between America and Japan is none of their concern, as Sonny repeats his father’s adage: “country ain’t your blood” and “not to risk your life for strangers“; that’s when Michael drops the shocking news: against his family’s wishes, Michael has just enlisted into the U.S. army that’s going into World War II. This news pours cold water on the celebration, as the family members find it hard to understand why Michael would do something like this. There are  arguments within the family about what Michael has done, with Sonny strongly admonishing Michael for breaking his father’s heart on his birthday. Then Don Vito arrives off-screen (heard not seen), and one by one. members of the family leave the table to celebrate the father’s birthday; except Michael, who sits alone at the family table, still holding on to his idealism and moral purity. Then the film cuts to a scene that happened even before – sometime in the 1920’s, and which was the final scene in Vito’s portion of story in the film. It’s when Vito and family are returning from Sicily with Vito playing a sort of puppeteer, teaching Michael to say goodbye. Then it cuts to 1960, with Michael sitting alone on the lawn and the camera zooms in on his scarred, ageing face, which shows his moral corruption to the fullest; then darkness slowly covers his face, as the film fades to black. You see Michael’s whole life trajectory right there: the young man born into a mafia family; who swore he would  never have anything to do with the family business; who had plans of his own,  etc. etc… and then his  father’s destiny intervenes with his destiny, and it takes him on a path he least wanted to, or expected. Now here he is, more powerful, more dreadful, more corrupted and more dangerous and evil than his father ever was.

The film, like the first one, is very much an ensemble piece and has some of the greatest performances ever seen, with multiple actors receiving Oscar nods.. Apart from Pacino, who was nominated for best actor, and De Niro, who won for best supporting actor, there is John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Robert Duvall, who are all carried forward from the first film. Each actor gets at least one scene to showcase their talent. Cazale as Fredo is superb in the scene where he is confronted by his brother about his treachery. He pours out his insecurities, his grievances at being passed over for the post of the mafia boss in favor of his younger brother. Keaton as Kay is excellent in the scene where she confesses to aborting their child. Shire as Connie has the scene where she forgives Michael and begs him to forgive Fredo; and Duvall as Hagen is wonderful throughout, but is particularly good in the scene where he is trying to stop Michael from killing his rivals and is in turn suspected by Michael of being disloyal. The two new actors\characters who make an impact here is Acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hymen Roth and Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli, both of whom were nominated for Oscars.

The film has Francis Ford Coppola working  at the height of his powers. With his great collaborators, Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, Walter Murch, Mario Puzo and Nino Rota, he crafts a work of art that is visually astonishing, emotionally rich and intellectually stimulating. As revisionist, path-breaking and ‘modern’ the first Godfather was, it was still a traditional Hollywood film in its structure, with a beginning, middle and an end, The second Godfather completely breaks this structure; the film consists of individual episodes, each structured like a mini movie, with its own setup, build up and climax. Then there is the cross cutting between the two stories, each having completely different lead characters from the other, though from the same family. Usually in  films having a flashback structure, the flashback portions will have the same characters who are in the present portions of the film. So, when you have different characters in the two portions, it breaks the emotional involvement of the audience in the film. Coppola overcomes this handicap by setting up a series of echoes, not only between the two stories, but also with the first film, which is the tie that binds these two stories. We had an attempt on the Don’s life in the first film, we have one here in Michael’s story.  There we had Michael Committing the first murder of his life to save his father and family, here we have Vito doing the same, except that Vito’s actions has far greater consequences than Michael’s. In Michael’s case, it just changes the course of his life, but in Vito’s case, he is not only changing his, but his family’s as well, and his children are also going to suffer the consequences of his actions. The disintegration of the family in the second story is directly related to Vito’s actions in the first story. There is a moment  at the end of Don Fanucci’s murder, when Vito returns to his home and takes Michael into his arms and tell him that he loves him very much; and then we see the adult Michael arriving in Lake Tahoe after hearing that he has lost his child with Kay. A child Kay killed because she is sick of the Mafia empire built by his father as a result of that murder. Vito’s rise and Michael’s fall are inter related. In all the dissolves from the present to the past, we see that Michael’s face disappears as Vito’s appears. But there is a big difference between Vito and Michael. For Vito, the power and the mob-empire was a means to support his family and other members of his clan; for Michael, the power becomes an end in itself, to the extend that he neglects his family. While Michael leaves his family and goes to faraway Cuba to pursue his ambitions, Vito, at the behest of his wife, takes the initiative  to give justice to a widow who is been tormented by her landlord. Even at the height of his power, Vito is a warm, lovable family man, who somehow manages to escape  the clutches of the devil, while Michael becomes cold and distrustful ,wrapped up in his paranoia and self-righteousness, to become devil incarnate himself.

The screenplay crafted by Coppola and Puzo, though based on the book, is a marvel of plot and character development. The character arcs of Vito and Michael are almost one hundred percent perfect. We can also see parallels with American political history in the conception of these two characters. Vito is a ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’ kind of figure; comfortable with power and very much a benign patriarch; who appears physically weak, but is anything that. Michael is more of a ‘Richard Nixon’ figure, paranoid and distrustful, whom power corrupts beyond redemption. Then there are the dialogues which have all become iconic. It’s both realistic and poetic. With lines like; this is the business we have chosen, I know it was you Fredo…., keep your friends close but enemies closer,…. All of them has that aspect of stylized realism. A mixture of normal conversation and Shakespeare, which applies for the film too. The film is shot in a very realistic style, with its minimal camera movements and natural sound design, as if the film is taking place in real time, but then there are those grand operatic passages decorated with a great score that gives the film its mythic quality. The film is thus a great mixture of the grand and the intimate. Almost every scene in the film has now become iconic, but just to recount some of them: The murder of Don Fanucci during the fiesta; the confrontation between Michael and Roth, and then Michael and Fredo in Cuba, topped off by the scenes of the revolution; the confrontation between Kay and Michael, where she conveys the truth about aborting their child; the killing of Fredo, and the final flashback with the whole family together, are all everlasting images that Coppola has committed to the screen. Part II does not have the budgetary constraints that plagued the first film and Coppola had carte Blanche in shooting it. It shows in the final product . This is a more classy, more visually rich film than the first one; its devoid of those embarrassing, cheap second unit shots that were in the first film. All in all, the film showcases Coppola at his most personal, most grandiose and most creative.

1974 represented the height of American new-Hollywood cinema. Apart from The Godfather II, Coppola also made The Conversation, and he was nominated for Oscars as producer and director for both films. In the same year, there were other great films like Chinatown, Women under the influence , Lenny, The Parallax View etc…The very next year, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws would be released and that would change the industry forever. The business model would change from maverick filmmakers attempting personal films to studios generating mass market blockbusters. Coppola would continue to soldier on, trying to make ambitious personal films. His next film, Apocalypse now, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, would  take 5 years to hit the screens. It was a very troubled production that almost destroyed him. But luckily, that film would also turn out to be a masterpiece and a box office success. After that,  he would  form his own studio, Omni Zoetrope, which would not last long. The failure of his ambitious musical, One From the Heart(1982), will sink the studio, and for the next decade or so, he would work as a ‘director for hire’ to pay off his debts . But even then, he would attempt some out of the way films like Rumble Fish, The outsiders, Tucker and Bramstoker’s Dracula. In 1990, he would make a third part to The Godfather , but without the critical or commercial success of the first two. In recent times, he has been making small, independent, experimental films with his own money, of which, Youth without Youth is a personal favorite of mine. Though he hasn’t made a film for some time, the ever audacious auteur, now an octogenarian, is working on a project called Distant Visions, which is supposed to be his attempt at live cinema, where the film would be shot and edited live. The project is expected to take years to complete. But whenever it releases, rest assured that it is going to be an original, audacious, never before seen attempt in the tradition of the greatest Coppola films, just like The Godfather Part II was in its time.

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