Sunday, September 7, 2014

Film Review: The Godfather Part II

"The Godfather Part II"  **** (out of ****)

Director Francis Ford Coppola continues the Corleone crime saga with "The Godfather Part II" (1974).

"The Godfather Part II" starts off where the first film left off. We see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) being made the new Godfather, with his hand being kissed.

The next scene takes us back to Michael's father, Vito Corleone's (played as an adult by Robert De Niro), youth. It is the day of his father's funeral. His father was killed for insulting a local Mafia boss, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). Don Ciccio has also killed Vito's brother and now young Vito is next. The Mafia boss is afraid the sons will come back one day for revenge. So young Vito must go into hiding and leaves for America.

At this point I am reminded of the first line of dialogue heard in "The Godfather" (1972), "I believe in America". And so here we see the story of the American dream. The down trodden coming to this country in the hopes of a better future.

These two scenes also set up the structure for the rest of the movie. We will alternate between modern day, with Michael as the head of the Corleone family and cut to the past where we learn about Vito Corleone and how he came to this country and what lead him to become the Godfather.

This helps set up one of the film's themes. Watching "The Godfather Part II" again, I see the story of a man (Michael) caught in conflict. We see how this whole world started with Vito and what it has become with Michael. But is Michael starting to slip? Can he keep his family (in any sense of the word) together? Is he able to tell who his friends and enemies are?

The very last scene of the movie has Michael sitting in a chair in a garden. He is reflecting on what has lead him to this exact moment. How the times have changed. Seeing this scene again as I am older I noticed a sadness on Michael's face I hadn't notice before. "The Godfather Part II" for me is the story of how the choices we make define us. They lead us to become who we are. Once the wheels are set in motion sometimes we can't stop them and so a cycle continues. Michael made a promise to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) in the first movie, that within five years the Corleone family will be in legitimate business. More than five years have passed between these two films and it seems Michael can't stop the wheels set in motion. At least not yet.

As Michael sits in that chair we get a flashback scene where we see the family; Sonny (James Caan) , Tessio (Abe Vigoda), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Fredo (John Cazale) and Connie (Talia Shire) waiting to celebrate their father's birthday and Michael reveals he has enlisted in the Marines. This scene helps re-enforce the theme of how times have changed. What has life turned us into? Why can't we go back to the better times?

These moments with Michael are countered with the scenes with Vito Corleone. Vito didn't want to become a Mafia man himself. He didn't want to get involved with crime. He came to America and made an honest living. He was married and had a child but circumstances being with they are, he has his own problems with a neighborhood boss and is pushed into a corner and makes a decision. A decision that will change his life forever and the life of his family for the years to come. And we see the effects, through Michael, it has had on the Corleone family decades afterwards.

Through "The Godfather Trilogy" Francis Ford Coppola has giving American audiences the closet thing we will get to Italian opera on film. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that Coppola has in fact given us the great American novel on film. It wasn't given to us by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck or Hemingway, as one might expect, but it was given to us by Mario Puzo, the author of the 1969 novel and co-writer of the film's screenplay.

"The Godfather Part II" deals with issues involving family, loyalty, life, death, power, corruption and sibling rivalry among other issues. Coppola and Puzo take these universal themes and have put them into a story about a Mafia family. These are issues which we can all relate to and are presented to us in a story about a group of killers and yet we watch and we are fascinated by this world and these characters. There are even moments, brief moments, when we see ourselves in them. In a twisted way the American dream is being presented on-screen.

Michael Corleone has always been the glue holding this trilogy together. The first film showed a man being thrust into this life. He too was innocent at first. He was not part of the family business but he became involved. This second film shows a man in conflict. The third film has a man trying to redeem himself. The way Coppola and Al Pacino present this character is as a tragic figure. Here we had a man of great potential and we slowly watch his decline, as a crime boss and more importantly as a man. What has he finally become? What has he given up in life? What happened to his soul?

Al Pacino doesn't play Michael Corleone as a gangster say the way he played Tony Montana in "Scarface" (1983). It was that potential of a decent human being that makes Michael Corleone an interesting figure and that is what Pacino taps into when playing this role. There are scenes when Pacino gives a very quiet performance. He is subtle and deliberate, much like Michael Corleone's thinking process. This is why we sympathize with these individuals. Pacino is able to humanize this character.

While the Vito Corleone portion of the movie deals with his problems with a local boss, the Michael Corleone portion of the movie deals with his relationship with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) as the two plan on a business deal in Cuba. But Michael is not sure if he can trust Hyman, whom he suspects was behind an assassination attempt in his home in Nevada.

There have been some, the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert among them, that feel this narrative structure of going back and forth hurts the movie. It causes a shift in tone which may take an audience a while to get used to. I completely disagree. I feel the parallel storylines compliment each other and as I have suggested hit on the theme of inner conflict and dealing with the choices we make in life.

I don't however like this movie more than "The Godfather". Some feel it is the greatest sequel ever made and surpasses the original film. I am willing to go along with the greatest sequel sentiment but for me, no American film surpasses the original Godfather film. I prefer these movies in the order they were released.

"The Godfather Part II" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won six including best picture, best supporting actor (De Niro) and best director (Coppola). It was also one of the highest grossing movies released that year and opened to generally positive reviews.

Unfortunately the public seems to have turned their back on Coppola ever since "Apocalypse Now" (1979). A shame. Sometimes his work has not lived up to the high standards audiences have for him but other times he is unfairly damned because it is a fashionable thing to do. The man should not be discarded. He is a brilliant filmmaker as "The Godfather Part II" shows us.