Expanding the Family Business
Living up to a legend is never be easy. In The Godfather, we see Michael (still played by none other than Al Pacino) taking over the family business with Don Vito's steady hand to guide him, hopefully to less unsavory ventures. With his father's death, Michael has fully taken over in Part II and he attempts to expand operations to Florida and Cuba after closing up shop in New York and moving to Nevada. While a great majority of the film follows his current trials, about a fourth of it offers a contrast by depicting his father's rise to power.
Don Vito's family dies in the hands of a Sicilian Mafia. At the age of nine, he moves to America and grows up choosing a life of crime. From a petty crook to a power broker, Don Vito (played by Robert De Niro) becomes The Godfather we know from the first movie. A man, the movie reminds us, who never loses his dignity. A man who deserves respect. No matter how we may look down upon the dark justice of the Mafia, Don Vito has his more human moments, such as the time when he intervened on behalf of a widow being evicted from her home.
A Downward Spiral
Whereas the first film was a picture of a glorious era with fat limousines and bourgeois values, the second connects with us in an emotional level with its mournful score. The somber mood is fitting, however, as Michael deals with betrayal and an ever growing sense of paranoia. Here is a promising, young man who has intended to lead the family into legitimate enterprise only to be caught in a web of lies. His wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) leaves him after an attack in their or, in his words, "his" bedroom. Trusted confidants soon turn into imagined enemies and Before the credits roll, save for his mother (Morgana King) everyone Michael has known and loved has been torn away from him by his inability to trust. Michael has lost what makes him human and we see him as a lonely man who is as fearful as he is feared.
The Godfather Part II certainly wreaks havoc on our emotions. Certainly, it is not your conventional crime film with the masterful way it emphasizes that, sooner or later, everyone gets his due. Lose your humanity and you will be left with nothing.
From Past to Present
Performance aside, the flashbacks do a good job to explain just where Michael went wrong and how Don Vito was able to keep his family intact. However, the editing leaves much to be desired. Going back and forth in time does have its drawbacks. One is that we never truly get invested in one time period. Coppola could have made a separate prequel to show Don Vito's rise to power before focusing on Michael's trials just to keep the pace going. After all, the material, and the acting, is strong enough to stand on their own. Also, a few scenes seem to be out of place. Michael's business in Cuba, for instance, is only vaguely depicted in favor of establishing Fidel Castro's takeover.
In the end, it doesn't really matter if you favor one over the other. The Godfather Part II is inseparable from the first film. Dark as it may be, it gives a deeper look into the Corleone's and challenges our morality in ways that a crime film often sweeps under the rug. If you've watched the original, you cannot pass Part II up. There actually a third film too but that's a completely different case altogether.