The Godfather: Part II ★★★★

It’s easy to assume that a complex plot is a sign of a great film. But the best films are deceptively simple in the same way that the greatest dancers make their movements look astonishingly easy. The Godfather creates its world so gracefully that we begin to think that it's a straightforward tale. But it's not simple to create a world so morally ambiguous, to introduce unforgettable characters, and to keep viewers fully cognizant of a plot so dense.

The Godfather: Part II doesn't make anything look easy the way The Godfather did. You can follow the plot threads, of course, but the constant breaks in Michael Corleone's story make it hard to continually keep returning to his dark world, especially since the young Vito Corleone's story is so heartwarming despite its brutal bursts of violence.

Part II is far more ambitious in scope, since it attempts to be both a prequel and a sequel. But it's ponderous, heavy, and sometimes muddled. And during this viewing, I became aware of the sheer length of the film. On my first viewing, the three and a half hours just flew by; this time, I was tired by the time the intermission arrived.

But while my first viewing allowed me to appreciate the tragedy of Michael Corleone, I only realized the second time around just how excellent the flashback sequences are. The Godfather films are, at their heart, about the immigrant experience. It's hard not to root for the young Vito as he tries his best to make a living for his family.

The fact is, Vito is always upright and respectable, and he only murders people who deserve it. It's shocking when you see the grim satisfaction on his face after each murder, but then you remember all the wrongs these victims committed, and it somehow becomes all right. Vito is a Robin Hood gangster, while Michael slowly devolves into a coldblooded villain.

And Robert De Niro is just brilliant as the young Vito. At first his mannerisms and rasping voice remind you of Brando, but while Brando's Vito seemed out of touch in a world so brutal, young Vito is in his prime, armed with a single-minded determination that is sometimes chilling. De Niro more than deserves the praise he gets for this role. It would have seemed impossible to follow up to Brando, and yet he does.

Al Pacino gets the short end of the stick, though, in terms of likability. While De Niro tells the story of the triumphant immigrant, Pacino portrays a character who we find out cannot be trusted, especially because he himself trusts nobody. Michael becomes everything his father wasn't, and it's painful to watch him draw deeper and deeper into himself, betraying and betrayed by everyone around him.

I couldn't take my eyes off Pacino the first time I watched Part II, but this time I was able to better appreciate Fredo's pain, and Hyman Roth, the deceptively gentle old don, and Frank Pentangeli, who's probably my favorite jolly gangster of all time. In fact, everyone in the film is just brilliant.

And yet, there is something missing in Part II. It’s obviously a very good film, but it’s not brilliant, and it's certainly not a masterpiece like The Godfather. The first film starts with a few evocative notes and builds steadily until the crescendo of the bloody climax seems at once shocking and inevitable. But the second film attempts to be two things at once: a tragic tune and an upbeat tune. It’s not only trying for viewers to keep changing track, but it also prevents both narratives from achieving their full potential.

There is just too much untamed material in Part II. And it’s only too bad, because the beginning and end of the film are masterful. The beginning feels almost like a silent film, and switches so seamlessly to Anthony Corleone’s communion that you’re immediately pulled back into the world we first visited in The Godfather. Coppola may not seem to be fully in control of his vast material in this film, but he’s brilliant at creating an enveloping sense of mood and atmosphere.

The closing scenes are just as atmospheric. The flashback to the family dinner between the Corleone siblings and Carlo is at once hilarious and melancholy. There’s a distinct upswing in energy, largely because of James Caan’s excellent cameo. And then Michael is left alone once again, always the odd one out. We leave him sitting on that park bench, his eyes dark. And we mourn for the end of an age, even though we should not, by all counts, be mourning for the end of a crime empire.

It’s only too bad that the middle never lives up to the beginning or the end. It comes close several times, especially during the beautiful flashback scenes to Vito’s life, but the narratives keep interrupting each other just as we’re warming up to the latest development on the screen.

However, despite all the weaknesses of Part II, I don’t feel as though this sequel was unnecessary. It would never be able to work on its own, but viewed alongside The Godfather, the sequel brings to life all that was hinted in the first film. And for those of us who love the dark shadowy world of the Godfather films, that’s more than enough.

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