May 10, 2011

#32: The Godfather Part II

Pretty much without fail, I've kept this movie-watching experience in order, starting at the bottom of the AFI's list and climbing up. Sometimes it feels like I'm Sisyphus, but I digress. I bring it up at all because Frances Ford Coppola's 1974 epic The Godfather Part II is the only sequel on the list, and so it felt weird not to watch the first film too, not because I hadn't seem them both before (I had), but because the second is such a companion piece to the first and benefits from the context of the original. It was all one book, folks (which I've read and highly recommend), and really, Coppola meant the first two parts to be a pair, with the third film (which I haven't seen all the way through) functioning as an epilogue. Food for thought. And SPEAKING of food!

Company: this was the biggest of all the diablogue events so far, and I hope it's a trend I can continue. A lot of movies here are a tough sell ("anyone wanna come over and watch Intolerance?") but The Godfather ranks among the best regardless of who you ask, and a lot of my friends hadn't seen it and had always meant to. Those folks included my roomie Kecia, Italian meatball maker; Alex, actress and Brando impersonator; Marisa, childhood friend and close buddy to Kecia; Marie, movie maven; Ali, movie maven; Anna, sister who is not that old; and Stephanie, sister who is not that much younger. A couple ringleaders had seen these: Matt, pianist and film fanatic, and Matt and Katie, bringers of salad and wine. All of us watched the first film (which I'll blog about in a few months, I suppose) but only the Matts made it all the way through both. That's eleven people in our little living room! Movies bring us together.

Cuisine: spaghetti with homemade meatballs and marinara...

... delicious Caesar salad...

... an incredible antipasto platter provided by pianist Matt ...

... along with garlic bread, gelato, and enough wine to keep the entire Corleone family good and drunk. It was a feast of epic proportions; would that they were all like this, that all the movies lent themselves so easily to thematic food!

Okay, onto the movie.

The second film in this series functions as a parallel prequel and sequel to the first, chronicling both the early childhood and young adult life of Vito Corleone in the early 20th century as well as the rise of Michael Corleone after his father's death in the middle of the century. Marlon Brando had already immortalized the Don in the first film (to Oscar-winning effect, although he famously declined the award), so the audience is hungry to understand the complex character. Orphaned at nine years old and sent to America to escape the mafia, he is destined to become the leader of one himself. This story serves the audience by emphasizing exactly how little he had starting out, while in the present day we see the immense scope of his power.

Cut to 1958, when the Corleone family, now led by Michael (Oscar nominee Al Pacino) after the death of father Vito and eldest son Sonny, has relocated to Nevada in order to gain controlling of the burgeoning gambling business. The shot above is beautifully reminiscent of the opening sequence in the first film, in which Michael's father sits in a very similar office, listening to pleas for help. This time, however, the Don is listening to Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), who despises the crime family and demands kickbacks. Michael's counter-offer: nothing. Bad ass.

But life has grown more dangerous, not less, in Nevada. Michael and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) are ambushed in their bedroom and luckily make it out alive, but the safety of the family has been compromised. Something must be done. Michael flees and leaves consigliare Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in charge, not, as would be custom, his younger brother and underboss Fredo (John Cazale, gone too soon).

Meanwhile, young Vito (Oscar winner Robert De Niro) is depicted as having fallen into a life of crime, seeing it only as a way to attain the American dream and grow powerful enough to someday avenge his family's murders. This half of the story definitely supports the contemporary half, but it's interesting nonetheless to see the beginnings of friendship with criminals we've met later in life in the first film, and more importantly, his single-handed victory over Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), the reigning crime boss in his neighborhood who cost him his humble clerk job.

Revenge is sweet, and wrapped in a towel disguise so it's quieter.

What's most unnerving about these flashbacks is the easy tendency toward violence, whether inherited or out of necessity, that Vito possesses. Is Vito (Andolini) Corleone a man of nature or nurture? I think with these questions, Coppola and Puzo (who co-wrote all three films, based on Puzo's novel) are making a statement about the ruthlessness of American capitalism. Criminal politics don't function so differently from our own government, and in fact they are woven from the same thread in Coppola's overwhelmingly bleak vision.

And its downfall is at stake, as Michael meets tycoon gangster Hyman Roth (Oscar nominee Lee Strasberg) in Havana to discuss possible investments there that Michael believes will be rendered useless by the possible upheaval of the Cuban government and its takeover by a young Fidel Castro. This section is long and somewhat confusing to a first-time viewer, but essentially Michael is caught in the middle, believing that Roth ordered him dead, and betrayed by his brother Fredo. "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart."


The film's dense plot involves so many subplots and sub-subplots that it's difficult to even summarize the film (go read the synopsis on Wikipedia and you'll see what I mean), but the film expounds on the first film's affirmation that the Corleone family's reach extends so far as to keep it safe from government interference, even when Michael and his family are put under federal investigation. The scenes in the court room are fascinating: while Michael appears to be lying out his nose, nothing around him would prove it since loyalty to him is so far-reaching that the frustrated men on the other side of the table have little to no corroborating evidence. The Matts and I were amazed.

"At this moment I feel no love for you at all. I never thought that it would happen but it has."

But Michael Corleone makes his ruthless father look like an angel in comparison. While Vito was calm, collected and relatively level-headed, Michael's let the power go to his head, and why wouldn't he? In his position, I can't say I wouldn't be a paranoid mega-bully too. But it's destroyed his relationship with his brother, about whom he says "I don't want anything to happen to him... while my mother's alive," and more fatally, his wife. The ultimate binding loyalties of marriage and brotherhood have been broken, and they'll have brutal consequences for all involved.

Only at the film's end, after the triple climax of assassinations and deaths, do we truly see Michael Corleone for the monster he's become. As he sits alone at the estate overlooking the lake, we contemplate his fate as the film fades to black. Betrayal and ruthless vengeance: a memoir. Harshest of harsh.

The Godfather Part II is longer than the first film by about 20 minutes, clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, and it can't claim the same sense of urgency and efficiency of the first, but the real power of the film lies in its dual depictions of father and son at the same age in parallel stories. Next time I watch these, I think I'll do it on different nights -- six and a half hours is a long time to watch one extended story.

I'll be excited to come back to this in a few months (December, if my pace holds and I can finish the blog by the new year) and compare the films side by side. Hope you'll join me!

Next up: from 1941, The Maltese Falcon. Another that I have no idea about, but I've been pleasantly surprised before and hope it'll happen again. Until then!

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