Both a sequel and prequel at the same time, The Godfather II is a landmark film that is better than its predecessor and transcends the gangster genre better than any film has ever done. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s first adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, this film is more about family, morality, and religion than it is about hits and mafia life.
We follow Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as he continues his descent from respectable military serviceman and family man that we begin in the first Godfather movie. We also follow the early life of Michael’s father Vito, this time played by Robert De Niro. Vito’s early life is set in an Italian-speaking section of New York City along with a few childhood scenes in Italy. De Niro has the distinction of being one of only of only four actors (besides Sophia Loren, Roberto Benigni, and Marion Cotillard) to win an Academy Award for a performance entirely in a language other then English. Additionally, he channels Marlon Brando’s performance so impeccably that we fully believe that this is Vito at an earlier age and not just a Brando impersonation.
As the two parallel stories develop we see both Vito and Michael from completely different angels than we did in the first film. Vito’s mafia affiliations were initially the results of being victim of circumstance. He becomes don out of a sense of duty to his family flowing from his twisted sense of morality. Regardless of the evil things he has done, he believes himself to be a good man and sincerely attempts to be that no matter how hypocritical it may be. We are able to see how his views of the world, of his family, and of himself developed and can sympathize with him without excusing him.
Michael, on the other hand, has had every opportunity to live a different life. In the first film, Michael tells his wife Kate (Diane Keaton) that the Corleone family will be legitimate in five years. In this film, Kate reminds him of that promise and of the fact that is has now been seven years since he made it. So we see the results of Michael’s descent from desires for freedom from the mafia life to godfather at the same time as we see Vito’s ascent from hunted child to godfather. As the first film showed how Michael is the titular godfather of the story rather than Vito, so this film shows that Michael is also the true villain. His descent becomes one that not only destroys lives of the family’s enemies but also tears apart the family that Vito worked diligently to create with his values and morals. As Michael strays from his father’s vision for the family, his unspeakable acts threaten to destroy that very family, in the name of which all of his father’s crimes were committed.
The sins of the father have been visited on his children. Michael has had chance after chance to turn from that evil, but in following his father’s example he ultimately dishonors his father’s memory and sinks even lower than we could have imagined from the first movie. While being about some of the darkest realities on earth, The Godfather Part II has a rare beauty in how its reels us into its story in a way that we can see truths about ourselves, about how we express our most cherished beliefs, and about our own hypocrisies although hopefully they manifest themselves in ways that don’t look anything like what we see in this movie.
“Stumble alert:” Like its predecessor, The Godfather Part II is one of the most violent movies ever made. But because of its powerful message and because of the necessity for violence so extreme, this is not a reason to avoid the film. There is always warning that a violent scene is coming, so if you don’t think you can handle it, you can easily close your eyes and know what’s happening in the story without needing to watch the graphic scenes and figure by the dialogue when it’s okay to start looking again.