25 November 2005

100 films: The Godfather: Part II

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starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Michael V. Gazzo, and Lee Strasberg
written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by Puzo
directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
R, 200 min, 1974, USA

As our story continues, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family to Nevada, where he attempts to expand into Las Vegas, Cuba, and beyond. He is engaged in a battle of wills with both investor Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and the U.S. Senate, which is conducting investigations into organized crime. In a series of flashbacks, we learn how a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro), after escaping the Sicilian Don who killed his family, becomes the feared man who would eventually carry judges and politicians in his pocket like loose change.

At first glance, it was certainly an unexpected decision to tell this story in segments, but in retrospect it was clearly the correct choice. Normally in a sequel like this, we would continue in a linear manner, following Michael as he expands his empire and fights his personal demons, and there's definitely enough material there to warrant an entire film, but by showing the backstory of Vito Coppola manages to add a new dimension to the entire story. What he's doing is ignoring the traditional means of doing a sequel and telling the saga as one whole story[1], and for that the Vito backstory is a vital part of the equation. In addition, the inclusion of Vito to Part two sets up a nice contrast that reminds us how far this family has come, and just how far Michael has strayed from his intended path. It is a bold choice for Coppola, but one that pays off large dividends.

Part of what separates The Godfather from your standard mafia films is that at it's core, this is not really a film about gangsters, but rather a character drama about people who just happen to be in the mafia. It's no surprise that these films dominated the acting categories at the Oscars[2], as these are actor's films, designed to showcase their unique abilities. No where is this more apparent than in the relationship between Micheal and Fredo (John Cazale). By Part Two, Michael has become an introspective, calculating man, content gather information through observation and rarely exposing any of his intentions unless necessary. As the film progresses, we see less and less compassion behind those eyes, and by the end it's clear we're looking at a man almost completely dead inside. By contrast, Fredo is a man who lives with his heart on his sleeve. He has never been given the respect he feels he deserves and strives to obtain it through a sort of friendship. He is the guy who shows people a good time, as if through that he can somehow create an identity for himself. But this overwhelming desire to be loved proves to be his downfall, as stronger, more intelligent men have no trouble exploiting it for their own purposes. Fredo is tricked into betraying his younger brother and it leads to him groveling for compassion while still trying to establish his worth. It's an amazing performance by Cazale, one of our more tragic actors. This is a man who made only five feature films[3] before dying of cancer, and all five of them were nominated for Best Picture. Sadly, he was never recognized in his lifetime.

In the flashbacks, Robert DeNiro is given the job of playing Brando's Vito as a young man. Naturally, the Method actor spent time in Sicily preparing for the role, and what he presents is a compassionate man with a cunning and forceful demeanor. He is the type of man who can get you to do what you never thought you would, simply by looking at you. I imagine he had that rare ability to look right through you, as if he were examining your soul. He has a force of will that demands your respect. DeNiro plays it nearly to perfection, even down to the Italian he must speak for the entire film, and he is somehow able to show us the evolution of his character, from an average citizen to the beginning stages of underworld boss.

Every year, as part of my Thanksgiving tradition, I take the time to watch The Godfather trilogy (well, at very least the first two) and every year I notice more and learn more about what a great film entails. This is a series that resonates from beginning to end because it is masterfully directed, shot, edited, designed, and written, but more importantly because it contains some of the most memorable performances in the history of cinema. It is a Thankgiving feast for any fan of the artistry of film and a must-see for anyone anywhere with even a passing interest in storytelling in any form.

[1] Naturally, he would re-edit the first 2 films to create one long, linear TV miniseries.

[2] Part One had Brando win Best Actor and claimed three nominations for Supporting Actor (James Caan, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall). In Part Two DeNiro won Best Supporting Actor, Pacino was nominated for Best Actor, and the film had three more supporting nominations (Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire).

[3] They were: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978).


johanna said...

"and just how far Michael has strayed from his intended path"

very good, lucas

this film was a holiday tradition in our family as well. i was so pleased when Coppola edited the first two together and we could watch the saga instead of having to pull out and rewind tapes

lucas said...

i hear that from a lot of people. i just started the tradition b/c i had just bought the box set when it came out several years ago.

someone said this about it: "You've mentioned your Thanksgiving tradition of watching the Godfather films, and I thought it was as good as any though a little stranger than some. Now I've made the connection -- this isn't a family film in the Disney sense, but it is all about families and gives deep and loving attention to the notion. I can see how it fits into the family mode, after all. And it's more interesting to watch while digesting a colon-blocking holiday meal than the usual television."

johanna said...

a friend of yours?

lucas said...

nah, just someone who read the review.

johanna said...

i think part of the reason it makes such a good holiday film isn't just the family sense, but its epic-ness.

i hate it when i'm at someone else's house and no one's paying any attention to what's on.

it's pretty hard to ignore an epic