I had some substantial reservations about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, though they were outweighed by my admiration for it. I have some admiration for his The Godfather, Part II, though rather more reservations. In some ways, part one was a happy accident, and its excitement in some degree derives from one’s sense of the excited discovery in its making that, out of such trashy materials, could be made something good. In Part II, everything is weighed down with the sense that, out of such materials, is being forged something artistic, something important. In The Godfather, a story about some gangsters unexpectedly, if ambiguously, seemed to speak to us about our own American family lives and business dealings. In The Godfather, Part II, the saga of the Corleone family is intended to be a Götterdämmerung for the whole of American civilization.
Whenever I hear the Santayana aphorism, used to begin Lacombe, Lucien, about those failing to remember the past being condemned to relive it, I’m reminded, as if it were a corollary, of Marx’s comment to the effect that, when history repeats itself, though events may first be tragic, they always recur as farce. For all the measured solemnity of Part II‘s spectacle of blood vendettas, Borgia-like plots, kisses of death, and the like, there seemed to me, at least for a while at the beginning, something inadvertently comic about it. Gangsters sententiously speak of their colleagues as “men of vision”; Michael Corleone, trying to fill his father’s shoes, comes to his mother with such philosophical questions as, “By being strong for your family, can you lose it?” and discourses learnedly to his underlings, “If anything in this life is certain, if history’s taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
Though it’s true that the Corleones have to some extent become folkloric figures, I think Coppola has drastically misjudged the level of seriousness at which they’re taken (as witness the proliferation of parodies, ranging from Ugo Tognazzi’s hilarious turn in The Grand Bouffe to Harry Belafonte’s in Uptown Saturday Night) . If the Corleones are America’s first family of Mafiosi, it’s not because they’re such profound but because they’re such lively creations. The assumption of much of Godfather II seems to be that these characters are so deeply rooted an institution in our cultural life that legendary status is automatically conferred on the story of how Vito Corleone got that way (which is recounted as reverentially as how Billy Batson became Captain Marvel), or what happened to Michael after the first part ended. What happened to Michael is that the family which his father labored to hold together falls apart even as Michael far outstrips his father’s power; but, unfortunately, Michael’s family falls apart in ways quite as banal as do our own. His older brother marries a woman he can’t control and who embarrasses him at family functions, his sister marries a man the family disapproves of, and Michael spends too much time on his business affairs and loses touch with his wife and children. All this is supposed to be interesting, it’s assumed, because these are the Corleones, but, by the time Michael’s wife is shouting at him, “It was an abortion, Michael—just-like our marriage is an abortion!” life among the Corleones has become hard to distinguish from As the World Turns.
Of course, that may be the point; to some extent, it certainly is the point. The Corleones are just like us, which is to say, we are just like them. The epic of the Corleones in the America of the 60’s and 70’s—what Coppola and Pauline Kael seem pleased to agree is the epic story of America’s corruption—is the epic of all our disintegrating families; and it’s one of Coppola’s strengths as an artist that he’s able to imagine the drama of family life throughout his work with such powerful conviction. But to attempt to drum up pathos at the end of Part II by the brief flashback to the Corleone family in its halcyon days with the children, gathered at the dinner table, eagerly waiting for Papa Corleone to come home from work (though it’s testimony to Coppola’s sense of family that he can see pathos in that moment) is surely to lose the perspective that this is a family of monsters. On the one hand, Coppola wants to deromanticize the Corleones, to make up in Part II for his failure (as he sees it) in part one unambiguously to show their corruption. “This time I really set out to destroy the family,” Coppola has said. “And I wanted to punish Michael.” But the schematic ironies of Part II—that Michael’s fall should parallel his father’s rise—dictate that the young Vito Corleone be glorified (as a pre-organization-man gallant bandit) far beyond any such romanticization in part one. And Michael’s “punishment,” when finally paid in full, is that, for all his power, he’s driven everyone from him by his fear of enemies, and has become another instance of that unrevivably exhausted cliché: it’s lonely at the top.
Needless to say, given that Part II is a Coppola movie, all this omits mention of the great deal that is admirable in it. Despite one’s reservations about the conception, the execution is, for the most part, masterly, and almost every scene, taken on its own, is a model of finely-crafted direction. By far the strongest scenes (and the most dramatically straightforward and ironically unencumbered ones) are those featuring Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corle-one in New York (these scenes were originally conceived as part of the first film, and omitted because of its length); and though De Niro’s performance can’t fully escape the shadow of Brando’s, the younger actor nevertheless brings to the film a smoldering menace of his own. As a new character, undisguisedly modeled on Meyer Lansky, Lee Strasberg is quietly authoritative, though I could have done without the pointed symbolism of the moment in which he and Michael, after conferring with officials of the Batista regime and representatives of the “General Fruit Company” and “United Telephone and Telegraph,” cut up a cake decorated with a map of Cuba. (As Michael, Al Pacino, so brilliant in charting his character’s evolution through part one, has the thankless task of growing ever less communicative.) Visually, the film is, like part one, continually arresting, though I rather prefer the “Turkish-bath lighting” (in Manny Farber’s felicitous phrase) of the first to this one’s rather too deliberately beautiful recapitulation of the World’s Great Paintings. And though there’s some occasional loosening of Coppola’s heretofore impressively firm narrative grip (at first I thought we were being deliberately confused about a Byzantine plot on Michael’s life, but even at the end it wasn’t clear to me who was trying to do what to whom and why), there’s still plenty of storytelling skill in evidence. Above all, and for all its flaws, the film is constantly and compellingly watchable.
But given the ambition that’s gone into it, it isn’t the work it ought to be, and one wonders why. Perhaps the failure inheres somehow in the nature of the work, and no ironic study of disintegration and failure can have the impact of a story about a drive toward success and its achievement; such reasons might account for the fact that, in its constricted and disjointed feeling, Part II bears much the same relation to part one as did The New Land to The Emigrants. But I doubt this in itself explains it. Why, then, is all the film’s seriousness of ambition insufficient to make it into the work it’s clearly intended to be? It’s not, either, that the film hasn’t been made in every respect as Coppola intended; surely, no big-budget commercial movie on this scale has ever been more of a fully realized personal project. Coppola has, in fact, succeeded in making what is probably the most expensive “art film” in movie history; and, to judge from the early box-office returns, he’s managed to do that and still succeed commercially. (Though this was all but assured by the ready-made audience for a sequel to the biggest moneymaker in movie history, and I doubt that, on its own, a film like Part II could attract any such audience; at any rate, I know of no one except movie critics who likes Part II as much as part one.)
Indeed, part of the trouble is that, like some of The Conversation, Part II seems to be a symptom of a case of art-film-in-the-head, of a director’s overly deliberate and self-conscious attempt to make a film that’s unmistakably a serious work of art. But though, as I wrote of The Conversation, Coppola’s seriousness is one of his admirable qualities, seriousness requires responsive objects. And all the seriousness and artistry ambitiously lavished on this new film won’t transmute what is essentially an Edna Ferberish generational saga of the mafiosi into that serious work of art: the Corleones are the Corleones, and the story of their fall isn’t the Oresteia.