Dialogue: Discussing the Family Business Part 2: 'The Godfather Part II'
Our look at the three 'Godfather' films continues with the 'Part II,' a masterful film Francis Ford Coppola didn't even want to make.
It’s the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about crime, family, America, the best pasta dishes to feed a small army of goons, and so much more. We’re taking the opportunity to talk about the saga as a whole. Two weeks ago, we kicked off our conversation with The Godfather, which ends with the death of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and the ascension of his son Michael (Al Pacino), who acts decisively and violently in wiping out the heads of the other New York crime family, thus ending a threat to the Corleones. The Godfather Part II finds the Corleones relocated to Nevada, where they have a stake in the casino business, among other shady enterprises. The film also flashes back to the turn-of-the-century, when young Vito Corleone, played as an adult by Robert De Niro, is making his way in America.
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Scott: The Godfather Part II opens right where The Godfather left off, with the enigmatic look on Michael Corleone’s face as his cronies kiss his hand and give him the proper respect that’s shown to a Don. He’d just pulled off a coordinated attack on the city’s other mob bosses, which had the simultaneous effect of protecting the Corleone family from outside threats and condemning Michael to a role he never wanted but can nonetheless play with chilling resolve. Coppola then turns his camera toward the indentation on an office chair, Don Vito’s office chair, before dissolving to a flashback in Corleone, Sicily in 1901, when Don Vito was Vito Andolini. If Michael is going to occupy that seat of power now, as Coppola suggests, then we should learn more about what that means. What are the roots of this family tree? And how did they get poisoned?
There’s much to be said about the structure of The Godfather Part II, which uses flashbacks to create a kind of dialogue between father and son, drawing parallels and emphasizing the evil that has calcified their lives, often due to circumstances they could not control. Michael was supposed to be the good son, the war hero with the pretty, conventional wife who could legitimize the Corleone name. Obviously, that didn’t work out. Poor, sickly young Vito Corleone, for his part, had no control over what happened to his family in Sicily. Or what would happen when he came to America. A life of crime isn’t something that you plan, in other words. It’s something you’re led to do.
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But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First let’s savor the truly awe-inspiring journey of young Vito from Sicily to Ellis Island, where he’s the face of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free—or, given his health condition, yearning to breathe at all. He will indeed get stronger with age, just as Don Ciccio predicted when he tried to wipe the entire Corleone family (still Andolinis) line out before any of them could have their revenge. But now, Coppola treats us to two iconic images around the Statue of Liberty. (And yes, I’m going to use that terribly abused adjective because it actually applies here.) First, there’s the shot of Vito and the huddled masses on the ships, exultant as the statue comes into view after their long journey.. Then later, after Vito is processed and tucked into a quarantine room to recover from his illness, there’s the reflection of the statue against the image of his face looking out the window. “I believe in America,” the undertaker Bonasera declared in The Godfather. Here, Coppola expresses the nation’s promise without words.
That idealism shrinks in the cold light of reality. The promise of America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will be able to claim your stake in the new land. What Vito actually discovers here is more a “meet the old boss” scenario: The Italian neighborhood where he works as a grocer has a Ciccio of its own, Don Fanucci, and he loses his job to one of Fanucci’s relatives. There’s no meritocracy here, no rewards for the hard work that Vito is doing. The game is as rigged in America as it is in Sicily, and if he wants to get ahead, he’s going to have to play it. That’s the slippery slope that he slides as the film progresses, and he starts to find his power.
The Godfather Part II is about the connections between Don Vito and Michael, but on this viewing, I started to think more about how the men are different, even though the story of one accounts for the story of the other. Whether it’s De Niro or Brando playing him, Don Vito never strikes me as a remorseful or regretful person.. There’s the sense that he’s playing the hand he was dealt: As soon as he discovered that hard work and clean-living wasn’t the way to make it in America, he changed course. And he’s comfortable with the course he’s on. (He’s good at being a gangster. So maybe America is a meritocracy after all.) But the Corleones are still like many immigrants in that their children are supposed to benefit from the sacrifices that they’ve made. The success of this particular family business is supposed to lead to the legitimacy of the second-generation—or at least someone like Michael, who doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of it. Maybe Michael is also playing the hand he was dealt, since Sonny is dead and Fredo could barely handle 52 Pick-up. But the moral corrosiveness of the job reads on Pacino’s face in nearly every scene. He’s a mirthless and genuinely terrifying figure.
So Keith, what’s your read on those early scenes of Vito in America? And what about the Corleones on Lake Tahoe, for that matter? Quite a shindig for a boy’s First Communion. And to really get a basic question here: Why does The Godfather Part II exist? What do we get out of the relationship between Vito and Michael that maybe wasn’t suggested by the first movie?
Keith: All interesting topics, but first a kind of koan: The Godfather is a perfect film. And yet The Godfather Part II is an even better film. How can this be?
I don’t really have an answer, but I think you’re onto something with the comparisons between young Vito and not-as-young-as-in-the-first-movie Michael. In a charitable reading, Vito is doing what he must to survive.
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