The princes of darkness

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).

Carmela: Tony watches Godfather II [on laserdisc] all the time.  He says the camerawork looks just as good as in the movie theater.

Father Phil: Gordon Willis!  Tony prefers II, not I?

Carmela: Yeah, he likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily.  III was like, what happened?
--The Sopranos, pilot episode  

I’m of the opinion that The Godfather, Part II (1974) is on par with rather than superior to its predecessor, and that if anything the original film might have a slight edge on the sequel; it also has the advantage of being able to function as a stand-alone work, where “II” can only really exist in relation to “I.”  But really the two films are so intricately related to each other that they should be thought of a single epic story, with the dual strands of the sequel’s plot enclosing that of the first film like parentheses.  (I’m also of the opinion that “III” is, at its best moments, an interesting failure.  What happened, indeed.)

The structure of Part II allows us to watch the rise and fall of the Corleone family at the same time, as Michael (Al Pacino) proceeds to destroy the family unit that we are simultaneously watching Vito (Robert de Niro) build in the flashback scenes.  It would feel like a cheap gimmick were it not so emotionally affecting to see many of the same characters at two different points in time—Michael as a child on the train with his father dissolving to the adult Michael sitting alone in the garden.  Such films could perhaps only have been made by Italians; their operatic sweep has its roots in Italian cinema, in films like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, and (looking ahead) Bertolucci’s hugely ambitious 1900, more so than in anything that had ever been made in Hollywood, whose epics (like Gone with the Wind) have derived more from melodrama than from high tragedy.  The films find Coppola both staking his claim on the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s as well as on his cultural patrimony as an Italian-American filmmaker.   

Visually, Part II may be the better film.  Gordon "Prince of Darkness" Willis’ cinematography in Part II is smoother, creamier, and less grainy than in the first Godfather film (which remains gorgeous in its own right).  In the original Godfather Coppola and Willis played with the visual contrast between the shadow world of Don Corleone’s lair and the brightly lit world outside; here, the warm, burnished-gold quality of the Little Italy flashbacks is made to contrast with the cold light of the compound at Tahoe.  Both halves of the film look breathtaking.  That Willis was never so much as nominated for an Oscar for either film may be the most shocking of The Godfather saga’s crimes.      

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