May 16: The Godfather Part II | A Mob/Mafia/Crime Movie
In the category of A Mob/Mafia/Crime Movie, Max has chosen The Godfather Part II (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written with Mario Puzo, starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, and Robert Duvall.
The Godfather Part II is not just a sequel — nor is it a prequel: it is both of those, but more importantly, it is a triumph in character studies and dual storytelling.
As Scott elegantly said yesterday, every bit of the Godfather shows mastery — not a moment, beat, or line is wasted, and the entire picture lives as a unique experience that rewards the audience with every viewing. The Godfather Part II is just as impactful, and maybe even more so in certain areas. However, I will say Part II has the unfair advantage of adding Robert De Niro into the mix.
Instead of simply picking up where the Godfather left off, Part II takes us back in time to see the origin of Don Vito Corleone. This is important for this film — and it’s one of the smartest choices that was made. Why? Well, while we don’t necessarily like Michael as he takes the path to become the heir apparent to his father, we sympathize and understand his predicament. Yet in Part II, Michael further descends into criminality, and he makes hard choices that both cement him as a true boss and a heartless man. He’s isolated from his family, and that isolation grows.
Yet with Vito’s story, we get to see a young boy cope with the murder of his family in turn of the century Italy, as well as his journey to America. The film tells you just what you need to know, and shows Vito’s rise to the top with small vignettes scattered throughout Michael’s story. This duality, one of growing power, respect, and hard work from Vito paired with Michael’s struggle to keep everything from falling apart shows us that a life of crime isn’t just glamor and reward.
More than that, though, De Niro’s Vito is cool, charming, and suave — yet he says very few words. His raspy Sicilian accent grounds Marlon Brando’s depiction in reality, and De Niro’s face can sell every single reaction. Through Vito, we see the love of family and the respect for Italians. Vito’s rise to power means he will exterminate the parasitic boss and create his own empire, which supports a kind of vigilante justice as much as it does crime and grifting.
So to see that paired with Michael’s further descent into isolation — it’s powerful, it’s smart, and it hurts at times. By the time he is despicable, we resent him as much as the people surrounding him. Yet we also know why he’s done every single thing he’s done.
Cazale’s Fredo breaks his brother’s heart, as well as the viewer’s. While he spends most of his time in both films playing a dopey screw up, we see this come to a head in this film. Maybe you’ve heard a spoof on the iconic “I’m smart!” scene, but it shows the amount of skill Cazale brought to the screen. While Fredo is crumpled into a chair, he is defiant in his tone. You can hear the emotions crackle through his words, and the performance gives me chills every time. After this, Fredo is simply broken.
And it’s not just Cazale — The Godfather Part II offers great performances from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Michael V. Gazzo, and even a surprise moment from James Caan.
Without these key players and the vision of Coppola, cinema would be lacking. And to jump back to Scott’s words, not many modern films come close to the mastery involved in these productions.
If there is a drawback to The Godfather Part II, it’s that moments of Michael’s story can be confusing. Not that the writing is murky, it’s just intended to draw us into the same paranoia that he develops. However, the balancing act of Vito’s rise to power compels the story forward. If this were a point deduction, it would be a few zeroes after a decimal, in my opinion.
So in my opinion, these pictures are almost equal — the minuscule separation in quality is so minor, you would need a microscope to find it. I think I like the overall package of the first film, yet I’m drawn to say I like the second one more because of De Niro’s Don Vito.
It’s hard to critique the first two films in this series. I feel like many a cinephile have a kind of epiphany on filmmaking once they see them. As we mature as viewers, these films mature with us, too. They’re probably the best made films you’ve ever seen, and if you haven’t seen them, you’re missing out.
As I see Michael alone at the end of this film, I simply find myself sympathizing with him — a man who is a monster, for all purposes, can get your heartstrings. Especially when we see the birthday dinner with his family moments before, when he simply wanted to go fight for a cause he believed in — he wanted to determine his own path, without having to account for the family.
Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.