The Godfather Part II – The Greatest Film Ever
For me, Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic sequel is the greatest movie of all time. Every single aspect is perfectly executed from acting to directing to cinematography to writing and more. The film is a dear favourite of mine and I recently rewatched it sparking this enthusiastic review and analysis. I will focus on the characters of Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) and Vito ‘Andolini’ Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) in particular and their decisions and actions throughout the story.
The art of sequel-making is a difficult one especially when the original is considered a masterpiece but sometimes a sequel surpasses the original: The Dark Knight (2008) and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) are two exemplary cases and of course Part II. I want to touch on a few key aspects which I feel create this effect and justify my opinion that the second Godfather is the greatest film, let alone sequel-film ever made through analysis of story and character portrayal.
[SPOILERS for The Godfather Trilogy ahead]
Brief Story Context
The Godfather was a 1972 gangster epic which is widely cited as one of the greatest movies of all time. It concerns the Corleone crime family as reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino) takes the mantle from his ailing father Vito as the Don who is known as Godfather. After his father’s death, his role proves problematic as hardships surface through lethal opportunistic enemies. Two years after the film was released, Coppola created a sequel which picks up six years after the original as Michael delves deeper into the awfully stressful, perilous life as a Mafia boss. This story forms one part of a dual narrative in the movie the other of which details the backstory of a young Vito ‘Andolini’ Corelone who rises from poverty in Sicily to respected gangster in America with a wife and children.
The iconic dual narrative of Michael’s story and young Vito’s background is a genius and iconic technique to show us side-by-side examples of a father and son and of the deep, steeped history of the unforgiving Corleone family. Such a technique was widely influential and can be seen in many movies to this day. One of the best examples of this is in Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America (1984) whose protagonist ‘Noodles’ (also played by Robert De Niro) reflects on his rough, hectic upbringing while coming to terms with its emotional baggage as a troubled middle-aged man trying to make amends.
Coppola’s film uses flashbacks to portray this second narrative which shows Vito as a child in the town of Corleone, Sicily. Vito’s mother is murdered by a gangster called Don Ciccio which sets the tragic tone which so often mars the characters in this universe. We see a young Vito soon journey on his lonesome to the land of opportunity, America his name misunderstood as Corleone and pressed onto his ID. Here a litany of themes and symbols come into play. We see a young, vulnerable child in the pandemonium of a foreign, hostile city; he must fend for himself to survive. This truly humble beginning fuels Vito’s ambition and grit. We are soon introduced to Vito as an adult and a hustler in his twenties as he gets involved with the organised crime which floods his neighbourhood and makes a name for himself.
The unforgiving nature of this movie and its characters is evident through dark themes and mob loyalty introduced in Part I which are built upon in Part II. There is no room for betrayal and when the topic floats in the air an abrupt or vile murder is administered. There are no exceptions to the rule even family will be treated this way. A rule so saddeningly seen in Fredo’s (John Cazale) case come the end. Michael must uphold his powerful position and any threats to this power hierarchy are dealt with in murderous fashion as seen at the end of Part I when Michael orders the murders of the heads of the five families.
Its not personal Sonny. It’s strictly business.The Godfather (1972)
This principle is pushed to the edge when Michael’s bedroom is peppered with gunfire as standings get as personal as can be. This adds to the disarray and mayhem of the Mafia world and family politics and dynamics in the film. Michael had to assert his control and position by killing his brother and in this light the retaliation was not personal, ‘it’s strictly business’. Murder is the ultimate punishment and gravest of crimes and so often this family delves into its ills. Fredo took sides against the family as he meddled with Hyman Roth to secure his position and his death was inevitable and necessary.
I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart! You broke my heart!The Godfather Part II (1974)
This heart-breaking and iconic moment is a massive turning point in the story and for the character of Michael Corleone as he knows Fredo betrayed him and so he is faced with possibly the most difficult decision of his life. There really is no salvation or real hope in this movie or the trilogy as a whole we just see the repetitive passage of a clandestine empire through succession; its very essence is dark and entrapped in a web of criminal conspiracy. We see the toll of this lifestyle through Michael’s sincere and tiresome expression throughout the film which leads us to acting.
The acting in this film is so brilliant all around that I would require an entirely new post to fully delve into it so I will focus on and briefly analyse the performances of the leading stars Robert De Niro (as young Vito Corleone) and Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone).
De Niro arguably outshone Pacino as a young Vito Corleone with his portrayal of Vito’s metamorphosis as a young adult from lowly hustler to gangster to mob boss to family man and Don. Vito’s journey is charted since his childhood and mother’s murder at the hands of the ruthless Don Ciccio. De Niro portrays this in such a way which utilises the trauma of Vito’s past to give a passionate, arduous performance as his character develops into a merciless leader instilled with a kill-or-be-killed mind state.
Al Pacino was no slouch in this film as the hardened Michael Corleone despite De Niro winning an Oscar for his role. Pacino’s remarkably consistent tiresome facial expression and low, magnetic voice truly actualise the pressure and tension he is subject to every second of his life as Godfather. There are no moments I can think of where he even grins let alone smiles in a genuine tone. He is the head of a family with quite literally the world on his shoulders as he is reeled into gruelling court sessions for numerous charges under severe scrutiny.
For me, Al Pacino’s performance was the best in this movie. The weight on Michael’s shoulders is such an immense and unique one and Pacino portrays this to great effect with a moody, expressionless character who has developed massively since Part I and snaps in bouts of rage Pacino has soon become famous for.
Expectations and Pressure
This leads me to the matter of pressure and expectations which the court scenes epitomise. The press and raucous in the courtroom reflect the attraction of Mafia crime in contemporary Western thought where such organisations are heralded in pop culture and society. This is a belief system which views everything that glitters as gold – far from the truth as evident and exposed in the realistic, gritty story. Michael is a man with innumerable skeletons in his closet, but he cannot dwell upon them as it will affect his judgement. Instead, he must bury the past and focus on leading his criminal empire and family while dodging bullets of hatred and jealousy. These are the expectations of a Mafia boss and are what form pressure in the movie. In turn, tension, drama, and gripping scenes are fleshed out in epic displays of directorial, acting, written and musical brilliance.
Expectations and pressure are also evident in the young Vito storyline as Vito must live in the harsh streets and dangerous neighbourhoods of America as a mere child and orphan. As he grows up, he must fend for himself and eventually starts an olive oil business and moves his way up the ladder of criminal enterprise. He starts a family of his own as more pressure looms over him. This rite of passage if you will is what forges the great man known as The Godfather in the first film and we see where he got his grit and wit from and how he developed from orphan to gangster. His character is so incredibly well-written and specifically in Part II as he returns to his hometown of Corleone, Sicily as a made man to kill the ailing, geriatric Don Ciccio near the end. This gives him peace of mind and capitulates his character arc in the movie in grand, poetic style.
As the late 2Pac famously said: ‘Real eyes realise real lies’ and Michael Corleone certainly can smell a rat from a mile away. His instinct for fishing out rotten apples among his ranks is a marker of his experience and hard-line critical thinking. Lies are what hold up the narrative in the trilogy as they are the route of all betrayal and ill intention as seen in Fredo denying ties to Hyman Roth and his people and Michael’s famous moment of clarity.
Lies are also manifested through Michael’s wife whose abortion behind his back sends him over the edge and into turbulent rage no other actor but the great Pacino can portray. This is the ultimate blow for Michael as he is denied a child and a son nonetheless who can take the helm of Godfather when he is gone. Instead, he is left with a son, as seen in Part III, who wants nothing to do with the ‘family’. This hammers home the abortive loss and highlights the importance of male succession for Michael and Mafia tradition in general.
Why is it better than the original?
The first Godfather may be the most critically acclaimed movie of all time and ranks number one for countless movie lovers and critics. It reignited and asserted Hollywood as a driving, dominant force in cinema and influenced masses and masses of people since its release. The same can be said about Part II which is rare for a sequel but most certainly fits the bill in succeeding its predecessor. The film builds upon the illustrious, darkened foundations of the original and shows us the ugly reality of life as a Mafia boss. In comparison, Part I gives us a rich look into the mob and the Corleone family and sets the tone in spectacular style as Michael comes of age and takes over his father’s reins – his journey is just beginning.
We see Michael’s struggle for power and the unspoken but apparent discord among his people and those who claim loyalty. This is a more nuanced, in-depth view of character and story which is supported by the dual narrative which gives us a whole picture if you will of the Corleone legacy past and present. The execution of the flashback narrative is what gives Part II the edge for me it’s a genius touch and draws parallels between the actions of father and son in different settings and time periods but bound by profession: it poses the question of whether a father’s sins determine the future of their progeny and sadly they do as Michael is drowned in tedious, perilous political and criminal affairs.
This is probably the most passionate review I have written and rightly so given my focus. For me at least, The Godfather Part II, in short, is the greatest movie of all time through the points discussed above and much more. These views compose a masterpiece in every sense of the word. There is so much I can say about this movie such as the music which tells a story of its own, but I will cease to ramble any longer. I love this sequel and contrary to my reasons above it in no way blows Part I out of the park in fact the original is second on my all-time list of films I guess I’m just a sucker for mob crime dramas and 70s classics.