Francis Ford Coppola created the modern film sequel with The Godfather: Part II. I wonder how people who’ve never seen the first one understand the second one. I was talking to a friend about it and he described it as the best filmic account of “the darkening of a man’s heart.” I hadn’t seen it in ten years and while that description is perfect, I found it interesting without knowledge of the original, it’d wouldn’t really work. One might figure out something was a little off, since Michael’s not exactly a person to spend 140 minutes with. Even the last scene moves away from giving any context to the character’s tragedy, instead going further–adding an unexpected layer to the character, reversing some of the viewer’s assumptions (ones the same scene had initially–and this scene is at most four minutes–reestablished).
In many ways, it’s a more depressing version of Citizen Kane, one where it never occurs to Kane to keep the snow globe (which is a good reason there’s no possible sequel, not one with Michael anyway). The juxtaposing of the two stories, father and son… I’m sure there’s been a lot said about how they work but I’m going for a more cynical approach. Robert De Niro’s story is in there as a reward for the viewer. The first film is not a tragedy, tragedy being a soft word for what goes on in this film, and it provides a release valve. Characters with known futures appear and there’s no need for actual concern for the characters. The scenes do offer a singular look at the Don’s marriage, giving Francesca De Sapio more to do as young Mama Corleone than Morgana King ever has.
The scenes also have action, something the Pacino parts of the film lack after the first half. While the opening Michael scenes resemble the first film–both in style and content–it quickly becomes about his relationships with his family. The first half of the last scene speaks directly to that focus, while the second half suggests something different, something more tragic, something about the relationship with Kay. That suggestion requires having seen the first film and it’s an example of this thing Coppola does in Part II. He gently forces the viewer into situations the viewer may not be looking for, but Coppola is interesting in exploring. When the film started, in Sicily, with the exposition text onscreen, I thought Coppola had some incredible affection for his characters, then quickly realized he didn’t… he was utilizing the viewer’s affection for the characters to create an atmosphere in which he could tell the story.
It’s a great film. It also has that moment Gene Siskel once wrote about, discussing The Bridges of Madison County, when the viewer knows something is going to happen, but believes his or her hope might change the characters’ minds. I’m paraphrasing. I’d never seen it in anything other than Madison County and thought about it, but watching Part II, I didn’t remember until halfway through the scene Michael closes the door and, for that second half, I kept hoping I was wrong.
Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Barry Malkin, Richard Marks and Peter Zinner; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Al Pacino (Michael), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay), Robert De Niro (Vito Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie Pentangeli), G.D. Spradlin (Senator Geary) and Richard Bright (Al Neri).