Friday, March 13, 2009

Repeat Viewing: The Godfather: Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #20
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo (novel & screenplay), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo

To call The Godfather: Part II (1974) a sequel doesn't quite do it justice. It is more of a companion piece to the original film, serving as both a prequel and a sequel, both expanding and enriching the characters and story presented in The Godfather (1972). This week I was fortunate enough to attend a cinema screening of the second film {each instalment of the trilogy played over three consecutive weeks}, and needless to say it was well worth the late night. When we last left Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), he'd just been "baptised" into the world of organised crime. Now, years on, he must accept that his position of corrupt power can only lead to the disintegration of his family, and the loss of everybody he's ever cared about. Michael's plateau of despair, following the impressive rise we witnessed in The Godfather, is here juxtaposed with the historical ascent of his father Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro) from a humble but traumatic childhood in Corleone, Sicily. The comparison delicately suggests the downside of the so-called "American Dream" in which Vito believes so passionately.As with The Godfather, Coppola's film could only have succeeded with interesting and authentic acting performances, and the cast doesn't disappoint. Al Pacino has rarely been better, playing Michael Corleone with a violent intensity that suggests the lasting influence of brother Sonny (James Cann), who was assassinated in the previous film. Pacino's scene with Diane Keaton, in which we learn that she received an abortion for her unborn son, is one of the most traumatic moments of spousal interaction I've ever seen, with Pacino exhibiting a barely-suppressed rage through his severe, almost fearful, eyes, and a quiver in the jaw. An under-appreciated John Cazale brings depth and pathos to weaker brother Fredo, and Robert Duvall is excellent as Tom Hagen. New to the Godfather cast are Lee Strasberg (President of the Actors Studio) and Michael V. Gazzo, as business associates who may be plotting against the Corleone family. De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of a younger Don Vito, understatedly evoking the essence of the character without parodying Marlon Brando.

The Godfather: Part II is certainly an impressive achievement, but it doesn't quite manage to equal its predecessor. Whereas the original film achieved the bulk of its emotional power through the transformation of its central character, Part II leaves Michael hopelessly stranded in his despair, portraying neither his rise nor his downfall. Having effectively sold his soul for the family in the previous film, Michael must now come to terms with his desolation, alone in his misery, and having long forsaken any opportunity for salvation. He concludes the film still at the height of organised crime in America, and yet receives no reassurance from his position of power. Michael is alone, a dejected and self-loathing soul, without comfort from the family he helped destroy. It's a haunting ending that will remain with you for hours afterwards, but nevertheless doesn't seem like a conclusive ending to the entire Corleone saga. Fortunately, Coppola returned sixteen years later to direct The Godfather: Part III (1990), which charts, I believe, Michael Corleone's inevitable downfall. Hopefully I won't be disappointed.

Currently my #1 film of 1974:
1) The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
3) Vérités et mensonges {F for Fake} (Orson Welles)
4) Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)
5) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent)
6) The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
7) That’s Entertainment! (Jack Haley Jr.)
8) The Front Page (Billy Wilder)

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