Godfather Part 2
When a film is successful it is always a good bet that the studio executives will push to create a sequel. More times than not such a follow up is a pale shadow of the original that leaves the audiences wondering what purpose it had in extending a popular story. As such most sequels are failures but there is usually an exception that proves the rule. One such case is with ‘The Godfather’. Francis Ford Coppola knew that he set the bar with the first film incredibly high. ‘The Godfather’ was not only the definitive crime family movie it was one of the truly great films ever made. One of the reasons Coppola managed to succeed a second time around is part two is really the second act in a three act play. It doesn’t try to out do the original; it was a natural extension of the story that already is in play. This was more than a sequel; it was a much needed extension of the story and a look at what lead up to the original Don Vito. It is also exceptionally rare that a sequel stands next to the original as one of the American Film Institute’s top film list but this one did it not just once but in two consecutive lists.
There are two parallel stories contained in this film. The first is about how a young boy from Sicily, Antonio Andolini would rise to become the feared and respected Don Vito Corelone. The other story line is how his son Michael has cemented his power base as the most powerful Don in the world of organized crime. Like the first film the heart of both stories is contrast. Here we see how much alike young Antonio was too Michael. Both were pulled into the criminal worlds by respect for their fathers and a feeling o family obligation. Both were smarter than anyone around them ever considered and bold in the way they took power when such an action was necessary. Coppola is a master in how he balances both stories. It is like getting two great films at once. The boy who would become Don Vito and his son and successor Michael both sold a piece of their souls to consolidate their power. While the first film looked at the loss of Michael’s innocence this one is founded on the well regarded principle that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It almost seems that both young men were drawn by circumstances beyond their control into a life so many others would covert.
The first story starts in 1901 where a young boy, Antonio, is leaving the funeral of his father. He had been murdered by the local mob boss, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). During the procession his older brother is also killed for swearing an oath of vengeance on the Don. The boy’s mother pleads for the life of her remaining son but the Don doesn’t want him to grow up and try to avenge his brother and father. The mother is killed giving Antonio a chance to flee. He winds up on a boat to America hoping to put his past behind him. His name is changed to Vito Corelone at the immigration station starts a life in New York City, now played by Robert De Niro. The social structure of the Italian neighborhood is the same as back home. There is a local boss, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), extorts money from the local in exchange for protection from his own gang of thugs. Vito is working with his best friend Genco Abbandando (Frank Sivero) at a local grocery store. They have a neighbor Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) who asks the pair to hide some stolen guns for him. Of course this is the same Clemenza who would one day be the right hand man of Don Vito. This is a small enough task but it starts Vito on the proverbial slippery slope towards crime. His first real encounter with the current Don is almost noble; interceding on behalf of a young widow trying to keep her apartment. Later on Vito, Genco and Clemenza become partners pulling small heists around the neighborhood. When this comes to the attention of Don Fanucci he demands his cut. In order to stay out of his way it is necessary for Vito to murder the Don during a local religious festival. This also sets up a recurring theme through all three films; the juxtaposition of a religious celebration with the removal of your enemies.
The modern portion of the film is set in the fifties where Michael has moved his base of operations out of New York to Nevada. He wants to extend his power base into the growing city of Las Vegas and the wide open country of Cuba. As friends, family and business associates gather, ostensibly to celebrate the First Communion of Michael’s son plans are at work to greatly extend the Corelone Empire. Michael finds life at the top is not at all easy. He is beset by problems on all sides. In his own family his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is unhappy with the man her husband has become. His sister Connie (Talia Shire) is divorced, again, and making increasingly great demands on Michael to make her life easier. Then there is Fredo (John Cazale) wants more responsibility but is suited to nothing of any importance. Within his business Michael’s world is beginning to crumble. Another family attempts to murder him in his own home while his wife and children are there. Fredo has made a mess of the Vegas operation and in Miami there are attempts to keep Michael out of Cuba. That last point becomes moot when a revolution breaks out in the island nation. The film ends with Michael sitting alone in his home office. There is no one that he can trust and although he managed to succeed in putting down all his enemies he is by himself. He gained all he wanted and found he had nothing of value.
This is a film of amazing scope. It moves back and forth in time seamlessly never letting the audience a moment to rest. There is a reason this is the first film ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. It stands on its own as one of the great pieces of cinema yet it is so fully integrated with the first movie you have to have the story that is told in both.