If ‘The Godfather’ can be said, broadly, to be about the old Don acceding to the new Don, then ‘The Godfather Part II’ is a tale of several Dons.
Principally, it documents the ruinous patriarchy of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) following the death of his father (Marlon Brando) and his succession as the Don at the end of the first film in counterpoint with the origin story of the young Vito Corleone (Robert de Niro) and the events that made him the Godfather.
‘The Godfather Part II’ opens with Vito Andolini, a young boy, solemnly following his father’s coffin. Cause of death: an insult to mafia chieftan Don Cicci (Joe Spinell). His mother pleads with Cicci for her son’s life, but he’s adamant: the boy must be killed lest he grow to a man and continue a vendetta. Vito’s elder brother is killed for this selfsame reason.
After his mother’s death at Don Cicci’s hands, Vito is smuggled out of the isolated village of Corleone and finds himself on a ship bound for America. At Ellis Island, an officer reads his name tag: “Vito Andolini from Corleone”; the clerk mishears and logs his name as Vito Corleone.
A couple of decades later another Don, this time a corpulent white-suited robber baron called Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), seals Vito’s fate. Already associating with snappily dressed petty criminal Clemenza (Bruno Kirby), Vito makes the jump from small-time to fully-fledged Don-hood when Fanucci tries to put the squeeze on them and Vito, sickened by the way he leeches off his fellow Sicilians, decides to take him out of the game.
Make no mistake about it: Vito Corleone does bad things. He steals, he fences (and not in the swordplay sense of the word either) and he commits murder. He benefits people’s respect – and the little gifts by which they show it – by trading on the reputation gained from dealing with Don Fanucci. And yet there’s honour in the way he conducts business. Whereas Don Fanucci operated to the detriment of the fellow Sicilians in his neighbourhood, Don Corleone operates, by and large, to their betterment.
Soon he’s projecting the appearance of a legitimate businessman, importing olive oil from his native country. A business trip to Sicily takes him back to Corleone and some unfinished business.
Michael Corleone, however, is moving further away from the family business inherited from his father. The Corleone family have moved lock, stock and barrel to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and sold off the olive oil business preparatory to a move into the entertainment sector, principally casinos. Michael wants a piece of the action owned by ageing shyster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a man whose incessant talk of retirement and his own mortality, sprinkled with promises that he’s going to turn over his interests to his “friends”, keeps his would-be rivals hanging on for an easy share out instead of becoming embroiled in a messy war for control. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer: Hyman Roth could have coined the saying.
Things quickly go wrong. There’s a traitor in the Corleone’s midst, and an attempt on Michael’s life. A potentially lucrative move into the casinos of Cuba goes tits up when Castro’s revolution topples the old guard and a rich man’s playground suddenly becomes a maelstrom, with mobsters, politicians and playboys alike falling over each other to leave the country. Michael becomes increasingly insular. Paranoia gradually informs his decisions and he spurns the advice of trusted consgilieri Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). His marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton) disintegrates. Congressional hearings on organised crime single out the Corleones, with the promise of a star witness who will give direct testimony against Michael.
Pacino and de Niro are both – no other way of putting it – fucking awesome. The script, by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, cleverly juxtaposes father and son at roughly similar ages. De Niro reverse-engineers Brando’s characterisation in a pitch-perfect performance, capturing both Vito’s steely resolve and the magnanimity and family-based code of honour that underpins it. Pacino continues the character arc from the first film, drilling down deeper into Michael’s heart of darkness.
With its extended running time (just shy of three and a quarter hours), multiplicity of characters and events, and detailed examination of the dynamics of families, businesses and allegiances, ‘The Godfather Part II’ could easily have degenerated into big screen soap opera. With Coppola at the absolute top of his game – this is one of the very few sequels in the history of cinema to surpass the original – the effect, instead, is more akin to grand opera.
Or to Shakespearean tragedy. The comparison is almost clumsy – the temptation to facile epithets like “‘Hamlet’ with a tommy-gun” or “‘King Lear’ in a fedora” are irresistible – but ‘The Godfather Part II’ deserves comparison to the Bard. Shakespeare’s tragedies are shot through with the understanding that it’s never as simple as good vs bad; that revenge is a muddied, muddled and compromised business from the off; that plotting and betrayal are only part of it, and what William Ernest Henley called “the bludgeonings of chance” are just as instrumental in the shaping of events.
Coppola’s masterpiece, too, is freighted with these understandings; and also with the grimly irony that it’s not the sins of the father that are at the heart of this particular tragedy but the sins of the son.