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‘The Godfather: Part II’ at fifty

The Godfather: Part II is a film about gangsters. It is also a film about corruption, power, betrayal, succession, revenge, religion, marriage, generational change, filial duty, sibling rivalry, the immigrant experience and laissez-faire capitalism. Only the works of Shakespeare combine such a variety of interpretations with unanimous critical acclaim, and the first two Godfathers are to cinema what Shakespeare is to literature. 

Like Shakespeare, both films are endlessly quotable. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” – “It’s not personal… It’s strictly business” – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” – these lines and others are all regularly cited even by those who have never heard of the Corleone family. At times, the Shakespearean influence is almost self-conscious. Compare the “It wasn’t a miscarriage” scene here to Act 4, Scene 1 of Othello, and one can see how exactly the same incident (domestic abuse) is used as a focal point for the hero’s moral, domestic and professional decline. 

In a rare case of the film being better than the book, Mario Puzo’s original novel The Godfather (1969) is very poor stuff. The best that can be said of it is that the pages keep turning. A close novelistic parallel to the protagonist Michael Corleone comes from an unlikely place: the hero in George Gissing’s Demos (1886). Richard Mutimer, like Michael, is an idealistic young man corrupted by his inheritance; he grows cold and abusive towards his family; he becomes obsessed with power; and he ends up as the very thing which he used to despise – in Michael’s case a gangster, in Mutimer’s a capitalist. Even as a great a novelist as Gissing, however, could not touch Francis Ford Coppola’s skill for storytelling. It was above all Coppola’s genius which took a pulp novel and elevated it to the level of high art.  

Contemporary critics were slow to appreciate Godfather II’s weight. “The plot defies any rational synopsis,” was a common criticism, and the point is a fair one. There is no real plot. Broadly it is a dual story of the rise of the Corleone mafia family in the 1920s, interspersed with its decline in the 1950s. Initially this dual structure was scolded for making each half of Part II merely a bookend to Part I, which had been set in the 1940s. Moreover, the entire sequel seemed confusing and unnecessary. Yet within a year of its release, all criticism was forgotten; it was hailed as better than its predecessor and became the first sequel ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

Godfather II cannot be appreciated in one sitting; it needs to be rewatched. The truest test of a work of art is endurance, and on every rewatch both Godfathers reveal themselves in fresh colours and nuances; the depth of the tragedy and the mechanisms of the plot become more and more impressive; and to each of us at every stage of our lives they speak something equally valid but always different.  

Al Pacino is in the role of his career as Michael Corleone, and the genius of his performance is written into every frame. In the final flashback scene, when suddenly the cold, power-obsessed gangster is shown as the grinning young man of decades earlier, Pacino communicates the change silently in a single shot. His body language and facial expressions instantly say everything. Robert De Niro is restrained yet imposing as the young Vito Corleone; Robert Duval somehow ever likeable as the family’s consiglieri; Diane Keaton a forlorn and trapped voice of reason; John Cazale hapless but increasingly tragic as he is driven by desperation to the betrayal of his brother. 

Throughout, the atmosphere is held up by glowing, painting-like cinematography and period detail which, whether set around turn-of-the-century Sicily or revolutionary Cuba, never overbears; it is utterly engrossing for its near three-and-a-half hours. The film’s final third – in which heavier music and gloomy lighting mirror the moral corruption of Michael’s soul – is by far its greatest. A lesser storyteller would have killed Michael off (which is what happened in the abomination that is The Godfather: Part III), but here Coppola is wise enough to end with him alive, sitting alone brooding over his sins. That, surely, is more subtly tragic than the assassination which is the usual stock of the gangster genre.  

As a whole The Godfather: Part II is so absorbing that – when it ends, and Nino Rota’s wailing, haunting score signals the credits – one is left with the grief, thrill, and astonishment that can only be stirred by an artwork of rare and great power. The vivid images and the gloomy dilemmas of every character play on the mind for weeks afterwards. It remains the absolute high point of all cinema. In fifty years since 1974 no other film has matched its universality or power. It is doubtful whether, even by 2074, anyone will have produced anything of the same calibre. 

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