Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of the Museum of the Moving Image. I live just five blocks from this fabulous institution (shout out to Astoria, Queens!) and have a membership that allows free entrance to the exhibits and whatever happens to be screening that day. The theater itself is beautiful, with a whacked out curtain (scroll down and you will see what I mean) and crazy blue lighting. But most of all, I love the MoMI because of its various film series.
The latest, “See It Big!” is a tribute to the late cinematographer Gordon Willis, who had estimable partnerships with Woody Allen as well as Francis Ford Coppola. In a nod to the latter director, the museum decided to host back-to-back Saturday-Sunday screenings of both The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. The boyfriend and I decided that now was the time to catch up on two classic films that we had somehow missed (or watched too early to truly appreciate).
I had heard tell, of course, of the majesty of the twosome. A crime family saga, an American epic, a true feat of acting prowess for all involved: needless to say we were a little excited.
By Sunday night—when we sat on our couch watching the Super Bowl ads we’d missed while at the second film—I admittedly found myself slightly flummoxed and confused. Part One? Huge thumbs up. Part Two? Eh. Did I miss something? For whatever reasons, most likely among them our age, this film has never been a huge topic of conversation between my film-obsessed friends and myself, so please, jump in anytime and prove me wrong about them.
But first, let me explain a little further (spoilers ahead)…
The Godfather opens with a tragic and harrowing story, told by a father losing his grip on a daughter who has been dealt a poor hand: two men tried to rape her, and when she fought back they beat her up. The minutes-long tracking shot, panning outward from the father’s face as he tells his story to mob boss Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is engrossing and fabulous and indicative of the intimacy of the film. That the Don does not immediately jump to the aid of this man—that he negotiates with him—immediately summons up a sense of dread and foreboding, matched by the physical duality of the scene: the darkness and claustrophobia of his office is juxtaposed with the brightness and joy of the outside world, where his daughter Connie is getting married.
What followed was, for me, an extremely focused, highly entertaining drama, with effective and horrendous violent outbursts—watching the marriage from the first scene come crashing down in a bout of domestic violence was particularly difficult—and tender moments of familial recognition and sacrifice. It is clear throughout the film that the family profession weighs heavily on everyone’s shoulders, and that each and every member of the clan has (or should) desire(d) a release from the burden. None more so than the Don himself.
Though the Corelone empire is threatened by the incoming onslaught of heroine and hard drugs in New York City, and though there is a pervasive sense of just how large these battling enterprises must be, there is also a quickly established and effectively conveyed smallness to the film’s focus. Each character finds their place in not only the narrative of the film, but what feels like their destiny; the high stakes for each and every person involved in the illegal goings-on suggests that they are locked in for the long haul, and there’s no getting out. As the choices made by the main characters meet their conclusions (in scenes depicting many of their deaths and one particularly gutsy maneuver by younger brother Michael, played beautifully by Al Pacino, to finally join the murderous family business), we cannot help but sympathize with the precarious nature of their livelihood.
Perhaps it is because of this high-stakes intensity that each and every scene carries such dramatic heft. The deaths feel, somehow, like weight lifted off the shoulders of the people involved while the business deals and betrayals are almost torturously foreboding. Coppola realizes that he is depicting the way that corruption infects and, pardon my French, fucks up everyone it touches, and there is no skipping around that notion. He doesn’t let us escape the tight-knit, claustrophobic mob world for long—even Michael’s sojourn to Sicily is tainted—and at no point do we feel as though things could truly end well for any in the Corleone clan.
A show I recently started watching, The Fall on Netflix, unknowingly summed up the tone of The Godfather with this evocative (probably misquoted) description: “serial killers (replaced with mob men here) sign up for a slow-burning suicide.” In the context of the film, and the T.V. show, all we want is for the characters to find some peace, to make amends and live a life of relative ease and anonymity. Perhaps that is why it feels so good, refreshing really, when Don Corelone finally passes while playing with his grandson. They are both enjoying the fresh air and, it seems, the little boy distracts him from everything that is horrible and sad about his life. No business, no assassination attempts: just the purest form of joy that family can bring.
It is a poignant end for the lynch pin of the operation and suggests a great deal about the emphasis on familial sacrifice and honor throughout the film. We finally see Michael become anointed as the new godfather, both literally and figuratively, and we know that the peaceful exit Don Vito made has, in fact, birthed violence and corruption for many years to come.
Those years are explored in The Godfather, Part II, a far less focused and more expansive sequel that nevertheless draws to a satisfying close.
At the start, we have a similar scenario as in the first film: the new Godfather, Michael Coreleone (still Al Pacino, stoic and dead-eyed), sits inside a study at his Lake Tahoe, NV compound dealing with the problems of a senator and various other brethren whilst outside a birthday party for his young son rages on. It’s effective enough, but when the real plot of the film is set in motion immediately after, the narrative becomes jumbled and, at times, nearly incomprehensible.
Michael and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton, underused like most other female characters in the film) survive an attempted assassination as gunmen shoot into their bedroom the evening after the party. From there, we learn about Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), an old ally of the previous Don and a Jew living in Miami. Michael goes to Hyman, seemingly to bolster his defenses and prepare for an expansion of the empire into Cuba; at the same time, his men attempt to kill Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo in a highly entertaining, committed performance), a family friend and cog in the Corleone business who Michael nonetheless suspects as the man behind the shooting.
In The Godfather we were treated to an insider’s look at one family’s business. Though the betrayals stung, they were telegraphed in a coherent, effective way, and the viewer waited with baited breath to see the outcome. The purposeful mystery of the assassination attempt in Part II, along with the introduction of new characters, muddles that simplicity. We are unsure of who committed the crime, whether Hyman is someone to be trusted, or if Pentangeli is hiding a dark secret, and as Michael negotiates his way through the film he, too, flips his story.
As a result, the main chunk of the film unfolded in a semi-haze for me. I found myself equally confused by the allegiances of characters, Michael’s though process, and a disorienting episode in Havana, Cuba which details the rebel uprising alongside Michael’s emotional and poignant realization that older brother Fredo (John Cazale) has betrayed him. It is possible that Coppola’s direction and the screenplay are purposefully confusing: as Michael expands the Corleone empire, he understandably faces a modernizing, increasingly fraught business model. As a viewer, however, I felt duped. Not by a lack of interesting characters, tense exchanges, or meaningful developments, but by a case of overblown, bigger-the-better sequel syndrome. The intimacy of the first film is sacrificed somewhere in that hefty three-hour runtime.
It is no surprise that the more satisfying portions of the film involve familial negotiation. The last quarter, when Michael is convinced by sister Connie (Talia Shire) to welcome Fredo back into the fold, is effective for its claustrophobia. Michael is shut in at his lakeside compound with a resentful sister, wary brother, and no wife (Kay leaves him at last about two-thirds of the way in); his emotions are at their most vulnerable and the tension mounts as he decides what to do about Hyman and Pantangeli.
Of course, the film is notable for its flashback portions as well, with a very attractive Robert DeNiro portraying the elder Vito Corleone as he makes his way in New York’s Little Italy in the early 1900’s. The period design is beautiful, the character development evocative, and the foreshadowing really just delicious. And the pairing of Michael’s current decline into hell (brought to a tragically satisfying conclusion with the sequential deaths of three central players) with Vito’s initially simple successes offer a glimpse into that poignant arena of familial expectation tainted by the demands of American capitalism.
It’s too bad that an altogether entertaining and engrossing film left me asking so many questions: Why did he decide to do that? Whose side is Michael on? Wait, he wants Hyman dead now? The Godfather, Part II had me wishing we could get back to the simplicity of the first film and the relief-tinged sadness when each flawed character met their end.
The final scene—preceded by a half hour of the truly great storytelling I describe above—brought some redemption: as Michael sits by Lake Tahoe he remembers a birthday dinner for his father set on the day he enlisted in the military (prior to the first film). Connie meets future husband and familial exile Carlo (Gianni Russo) for the first time, Sonny (James Caan) is still alive and volatile, Fredo is in everyone’s good graces, and, most upsetting, Michael still detests his family’s trade and finds himself the black sheep.
As we fade slowly to an image of Vito in the flashback, and then back to Al Pacino’s blank stare, it becomes more evident than ever before just how far the Corleone family has slipped into a soulless emotional and economic oblivion. In that moment I finally understood why film critics have continually praised this sequel for decades, and just how satisfying The Godfather epic could be.