#3: The Godfather: Part II (1974)
How do you follow The Godfather? The (literally) million dollar question Francis Ford Coppola found himself facing. It had taken a lot of money from Paramount to convince him to take on the challenge, adding yet more pressure.
After co-writing the screenplay with the original novel writer, Mario Puzo, Coppola produced and directed one of the most successful sequels to date, with Part II receiving both critical acclaim and popular canonisation (for example in IMDB top 100 form).
When sitting myself down to review this film, questions circled in my head about how to approach a sequel. I haven’t watched The Godfather in perhaps two years, so the fact that Part II doesn’t stand up under its own steam became quickly evident. But, I don’t think this is necessarily a criticism. It’s not so much about asking “is this as good as the first one”, but “why have they come back to this, what’s new and was it worth it?”.
The Godfather was dark, violent, and (from what I remember from the dim past) showed how you can justify pretty much anything, if you convince yourself the ends are worth it. Part II plays around with these same concepts, extending them into the future (or 1950s) through Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who has inherited the family business, and backwards via prequel passages, where we see Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone making a new life for himself and his young family in 1900s New York, after escaping the Mafia in Sicily.
It all has a delicate sense of tragedy about it, captured in the inevitable cyclicality of violent power struggles. Vito escapes the Mafia in Sicily as a young boy, outplays the local NY Mafia don, and himself builds the biggest “Family” in the US. Michael later takes up the reigns, having failed to escape via university or enlisting in the Marines, and ends up tearing himself apart. He in turn promises his young son that he will one day be able to let him help in the “family business”; said to a young boy who’s being tucked into bed, for me this was a key moment, highlighting the film’s central, horribly dark edge.
The whole film is claustrophobic. The women, who generally disapprove of everything that the men do, cannot escape the supremacy of the family, while the men are destined for violence and criminality, and most probably a less-than-dignified end. A lot of the scenes take place in dark offices, stuffy bars or underground clubs. Whenever the central characters are out in the day-lit world it’s a jarring contrast, showing either the corruption of 1950s Nevada (Michael’s HQ) or the desperation of 1900s immigrant New Yorkers.
Overall, worth it? Probably. The Godfather didn’t need a sequel, or a backstory, but it’s no worse off for having one. Part II is a brooding and tense watch, and is certainly a good use of three hours. It might not be entirely necessary, but it does pose questions to the viewer that The Godfather didn’t really have time for.