“By almost any account, the Godfather films are monuments on the landscape of American cinema,” wrote Nick Browne on Francis Ford Coppola’s career defining masterpieces. Even now, 40 years after it was first released, sitting down to watch The Godfather Part 2 is a cinematic experience like no other; epic, both in scale and length, it’s a towering achievement that fully immerses you in a world defined by a code of loyalty, yet driven by greed and treachery.
The film’s masterstroke remains its duel narrative, which simultaneously chronicles Michael’s growing expansion of the family business in the late 50s and Vito Corleone’s rise to power in the early 20th century. By playing as both prequel and sequel to the original, The Godfather Part 2 is able to bring the many lives integral to the Corleone family full circle, fully immersing you in their corrupt and often violent world.
Of course, at its heart is still the story of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who has gone from a naïve and innocent Marine at the start of Part 1, to an aggressive and bitter Capo, who chillingly orders the murder of his brother for the good of the family business, by the end of Part 2. Pacino’s tyrannical performance has become the stuff of screen legend; even in the film’s stills he exudes an all-consuming power, his steely gaze mixing with his calm demeanor to create the aura of a methodic monster. The script, written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, gently juxtaposes Michael’s domestic fall from grace with the growth of his criminal empire; introducing us to a man surrounded by those he loves as he tries to further build his organization and leaving with the image of a man forever alone, but with unimaginable power at his fingertips.
Michael’s concurrent rise and fall is intricately cohesive with Vito’s tale, which provides a deeper insight in to his character and a fascinating exposé of America’s changing attitudes towards organized crime. Robert De Niro perfectly plays Vito as a gentle soul with a hardened shell. He effortlessly captures Vito’s intelligence as he builds an empire through lavish gesture and unflinching violence, displaying a similar composure brought by Marlon Brando to the role in Part 1.
Coppola’s extraordinary film is, if anything, an even more hypnotic experience on the big screen. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is exquisite, illuminating Sicily with an authentic yet foreboding charm. Meanwhile, the overcrowded exteriors of Little Italy lend greater reference to the extent of Italian immigration in the area during the early part of the 20th Century.
To ask one to pick a favorite scene remains a near impossible task; the shocking power of that brutal opening in Sicily, seeing the effect Michael’s growing distance has on his marriage through Diane Keaton’s heartbreaking performance, or the infamous scene of Michael confronting a guilty Fredo. Each scene is infused with electricity that will hold you spellbound in shock and awe, unable to pull your gaze away.
Arguments still rage amongst cinephiles as to whether The Godfather Part 2 is better than its predecessor. For this critic, despite its undoubted greatness, Part 2 doesn’t capture my heart with such earnest power. But it does prove that with the right material, you can truly recapture cinematic greatness with the same assured supremacy… to see what happens when you can’t, try Part 3.
An Al Pacino retrospective runs at the BFI Southbank until the end of March. Click here for full details.
The Godfather Part 2 has an extended run at the BFI Southbank & plays at selected cinemas nationwide. For full details, click here.