If The Godfather served as a haunting eulogy for the American nuclear family, its sequel charted the death of the American Dream, ironically through those who unquestionably achieved it. Irony and cynicism pervades its narrative and its aesthetic, the golden hues of its tinting a comment not only on our sepia-toned nostalgia but America and its amber waves of grain. The Godfather Part II is a portrait of a tragic hero who is neither tragic (in that he is not deserving of a sliver of pity) nor heroic; though the film bifurcates and splits focus with another character from another time period, it is ultimately about the fall of Michael Corleone.
Its predecessor closed with a baptism juxtaposed with a killing spree, and The Godfather Part II opens with violence set to a communion, showing a young Vito barely surviving the murder of his family by the don of Corleone, Sicily and escaping to America, before Coppola cuts to Vito's grandson, about the same age as the Vito we just saw, coming into symbolic manhood just as Vito did with the dissolution of his family. Illustrating the progress of Vito's family is the sharp contrast between the two: Vito must become a man because he's lost everything. He watched his family murdered one by one and narrowly escaped to America with literally the clothes on his back, and he commemorates this radical shift by sitting in quarantine for tuberculosis, making the first noise he's made thus far by singing quietly to himself. Young Anthony, compared to the bloodbath his grandfather endured, accepts symbolic blood and flesh (the Eucharist) to confirm his adulthood, and where Vito sang quietly to himself, the boy is sung to. His father, Michael, orchestrates a celebration that seems more a coronation than communion, a boys choir praising the young lord among them while powerful men -- politicians, even -- come to pay their respects to King Michael and to thank him for his patronage.
The continuing juxtaposition between Vito's rise to power in America from 1901 through the mid-'20s and his son's ultimate consolidation of that power in 1957-58 illustrates how these initially vast differences belie a terrible unification, and, for all its leaps back and forth, The Godfather Part II presents a story with a completely logical progression. Sepia colors the story of Vito Corleone, who lost his identity upon arrival at Ellis Island when the immigration agent mistakenly identifies his city as origin as his surname, a clerical error that ironically ties him closer to his heritage; as such, Coppola and Puzo establish the character as the ultimate immigrant, literally named for his homeland, allowing the director to completely subvert the American Dream by charting Vito finding prosperity through nightmarish actions.
The first few times I watched this, I saw the difference between Vito and Michael was Vito's ethical code, his attempts to preserve his heritage and his method of creating a Family that worked doubly as the family that Vito lost. Now, the only particularly noticeable discrepancy between the two is that Michael, a vision of pure evil, merely lacks his father hypocrisy. Vito Corleone, like his youngest and favorite son, is soft-spoken and contemplative; he speaks so rarely that his voice rarely rises above in a whisper in either of first two films. Yet his actions are no less brutal than Michael's; they simply lack the scale. He kills Don Fanucci not for intimidating and extorting the Sicilian community in New York but the personal annoyance of being directly affected by the mobster's hold over the community. His first friendships -- with Clemenza and Tessio -- are forged with exchanges of favors, placing a physical value on their bonds instead of emotional connections or solidarity. Only after years of looking out for each other does some level of trust and appreciation emerge. Perhaps the greatest clue to the truth of Vito lies in the casting: he was played by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, two of the most dynamic and intense actors to grace the screen. These are not the people to play a gentle man who brings ethics to organized crime: these are men fit for tyrants and warlords, and any genteel feeling we glean from them is nothing more than shrewdness.
The ironic sepia of Vito's bloody rise is counterpointed by the overpowering gold of Michael's story: his father slowly gained control of New York, but Michael is poised to conquer America. He's bought a senator (G.D. Spradlin) to help clear him of a Senate committee investigation, exonerating him publicly to fulfill -- in his own mind -- his promise to Kay in the last film, that he would make the Corleone family a legitimate business. Michael has wormed his way into the upper rung of American's power ladder -- that of the wealthy, not of the politicians -- and he realizes that the only difference between a legit business and a criminal organization is public perception -- when Senator Geary tells Michael how deeply he despises the Corleones and their attempts at decency, Michael responds, "We're both part of the same hypocrisy, senator, but never think it applies to my family," a statement that shows how Michael cannot fathom just how deeply he's dragged his family down with him and the sick optimism of his attempts to clear their name. The golden color tinting in Michael's scenes reflects how he's become richer than God; the frame brightens so much at times I recalled Danny Boyle's Sunshine, a film about astronauts headed to the sun. Michael meets with other high-ranking businessmen in Cuba just before its fall to the revolutionaries, and we see that the representatives of corporations came closer to conquering Cuba than the United States government ever did.
Michael's arc reveals the pitfall of the American Dream: if we're meant to work hard and make better lives for ourselves than our parents, where does that leave the children of those who reach the top? Vito came to America with nothing and built an organization which Michael has turned into an empire, and references to Rome and its rise and fall are scattered throughout the picture (the Catholic imagery, Tom subtly guiding caporegime Frank Pentangeli to commit suicide in the old Roman fashion, and of course Part III would directly involve the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church). Michael's life follows the borderline Randian subtext of the capitalist dream: born into riches, he sacrifices what ties Vito did have with family -- his touching affection for his wife and children, best evidenced when he picks up his infant son and says, "Your daddy loves you, Michael -- for the sake of pure material gain.
If The Godfather dealt a crippling blow to the concept of family, Part II delivers the coup de grâce: Michael and Tom's plan of securing Geary's loyalty involves drugging him and killing his prostitute, thus leading him to believe that he killed the girl. Tom arrives -- thank God Mike's brother Fredo (John Cazale, who very nearly walks away with the film) owned the hotel -- and assures Geary that the Corleones will make it all better. "She's got no friends, no family," he soothes the senator, "It'll be like she never existed." At the start of the film, we get to meet Vito as a boy without friends nor family; at the end, Michael loses everyone he holds dear. He ahas Fredo whacked for accidentally selling out Michael to his conniving business partner Hyman Roth, and he throws out Kay when she tells him that she aborted their son because she so hated the monster Michael had become and refused to continue the cycle. In the penultimate scene, Coppola flashes back to Michael's decision to join the military, an action that both underpins the tragedy of his downfall from a man who wanted to lead a good life to the most terrible criminal in America as well as showing how far back his attempts to rid himself of family go. When Vito gets his start, he barely exists to a country that doesn't particularly want him, in a community that barely registers him, and at the end Michael sits alone in contemplation, king of everything and nothing.
As long as time remains, a debate will rage over which is better: Part I or Part II. When Kang and Kodos conquer this world, they will force their slaves to debate the collective merits of each and decide who lives and who dies based on their answers (of course, one will love the first and the other the second, so everyone shall lose). And while it is a pointless argument, I must confess that I will cast my lot with this every time. Never have I seen a performance as compelling as Pacino's; his eyes in the scene where Kay reveals her abortion can tell prospective actors more about the craft than a lifetime of classes at Julliard. His is but the tip of the iceberg, however, as Part II gets better performances from all of the actors carried over from the first while extracting equally superb ones from newcomers like De Niro. Aesthetically, Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and editors Barry Malkin, Peter Zinner and Richard Marks craft an epic eulogy for America, a deconstruction of our social and political infrastructures through juxtaposition and irony without losing feel for its doomed, twisted characters.