If you have been a keen observer of The Legionnaire over the years, then thank you! Also, if this describes you, you might be asking, hey, what happened to The Godfather (1972)?! It is a fair question because I have yet to address it. Another thing you may have noticed is that I have been saving certain legendary films for when my blog reaches milestones in the number of films covered. For better or worse, take your pick, they have all been entries on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list. The original is considered number two among these august rankings. Its sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), is number thirty-two. That two installments in this trilogy are on this list is an achievement, though I do not know what this says about the third one. At any rate, rest assured that I will eventually get to The Godfather. In the meantime, try to stick with me as I struggle through describing The Godfather Part II.
There are a couple reasons for why I am predicting difficulties in telling you about The Godfather Part II. The first is that it is nearly three and a half hours long. There was a point at which I had to pause it to attend to a personal matter. I could have sworn two hours had gone by, and yet it still had that much more to go. The second is somewhat related to the first. Its length is partially due to the fact that what you really have here are two movies. One deals with how Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) comes to the United States from Sicily around the turn of the twentieth century. The other focuses on his grown-up son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) during the late 1950s, working to consolidate his power as the head of the strongest crime family in the country. The film shifts back and forth between the two seemingly at random, but I will not be doing so. Instead, I will briefly talk about the Vito portion before getting to Michael. It is not how the movie does it, so I would not take my rendering as indicative of its storyline, but I prefer chronological order. At any rate, a nine-year-old Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) is forced to escape from his hometown of Corleone in Sicily following the murder of his father and mother at the hands of the local don. Vito is targeted, too, fearing that he will grow up and want revenge. Instead, he is smuggled out of the country and lands in New York city. When he is older, he gets a job with a local grocer to support his fledgling family. This is also when the don of his neighborhood, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), begins interfering in his life. At first, it causes Vito to lose his job. Later, he forms a partnership with two other guys from the neighborhood of an illicit nature. This, too, attracts the attention of Don Fanucci. When the representative of the Black Hand (old term for the mafia) attempts to squeeze Vito and his associates for tribute, Vito initially backs down and gives him some money. Later, during the festa (which includes a Catholic procession, no less), Vito corners Don Fanucci and assassinates the crime boss. Doing so makes Vito the de facto boss in the area, and soon he is doing favors for his fellow Italian immigrants, trading on the reputation earned for taking care of Don Fanucci. At the same time, he begins building a legitimate business where he and his associates are importing olive oil from Italy. This brings Vito back to Sicily where he is finally able to get his revenge. He then returns to New York and eventually we get Michael. He has taken over as the head of the family with Vito’s passing in the previous movie. We meet him near the top of his ascent, with United States senators attending a party held at his Lake Tahoe estate in honor of his son Anthony’s (James Gounaris) First Communion. This half is fuzzy to me, but near as I can tell it involves Michael attempting to bring all gambling in Las Vegas under his control. The first person to stand in his way is Senator Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin) of Nevada. He is taken care of, though, when his indiscretions lead to him being found by Michael’s men in one of the family’s whorehouses with a dead prostitute. This means that Senator Geary owes Michael a favor, which is what this world trades on. Michael has other issues. The first is Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a captain in the Corleone crime family. He wants Michael to take care of his rivals back in New York. Yet, those same rivals are in league with Michael’s business partner Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who lives in Miami. Further complicating the situation is an assassination attempt on Michael and his family after the party has died down and they are going to bed. To get to the bottom of it, Michael basically plays the two people he suspects of planning the hit, Frank and Hyman, against each other. Put differently, he tells them separately that he believes the other to be responsible. The whole thing points to a rat in the family. In the course of his maneuvers, which also take Michael to Havana, Cuba, on the verge of revolution, he discovers that it had been his older brother Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) who had been feeding information. As it turns out, it had been Hyman the entire time, but Michael’s attempt to take out his one-time business partner fails. It does, however, reveal Fredo as the traitor. Yet, the biggest betrayal comes from Michael’s wife, Kay Adams-Corleone (Diane Keaton), who tells Michael in her anger over her husband’s activities that she had purposely aborted their next son to keep him from having another child. Thus, after clearing his name during a Congressional hearing on the mafia, Michael obtains custody of his two remaining children, gets Frank to commit suicide owing to his role in those hearings, manages to have Hyman assassinated upon finally returning to the country, and sees Fredo killed on the lake behind his house. Michael has triumphed, but the final shot shows him alone staring into the distance, the toll it has all taken on him evident.
With the last paragraph, you have the barebones description of The Godfather Part II. Despite its length and snail’s pace, there were a few things that I could appreciate about it. The historian in me loved its recreation of Ellis Island. If you are not familiar with this land mass in New York’s harbor, it was the place where millions newly arrived immigrants in America gained their entry into this country, Vito included. The other is the cultural Catholicism on display throughout the film. You will notice the qualification “cultural Catholicism.” Outside of processions, seeing the characters evidently having gone to Mass, and other Catholic memorabilia, I doubt that any of them are faithfully practicing the religion. Whenever I talk about this subject, I am afraid that I am giving the impression that by regularly attending Mass, going to Confession, and praying (you know, the Catholic basics), that a person is free from sin. At the same time, there is a wide gap between saying a few curse words when someone cuts you off in traffic and murdering a rival crime boss. The problem here is that people like Michael and Vito at one time were representative of what Americans broadly thought all Catholics were complicit in, that being organized crime. Though this stereotype has lessened to a certain degree in recent years, we still have movies like this one that helps to keep them alive. Let me be clear: the Church does not condone organized crime, or any crime for that matter. Thus, when you watch a scene like the festa procession with its statue of Jesus paraded through the streets with dollar bills clipped to it, please do not think this is Catholicism being in league with the mafia. The overwhelming majority of the people you see in this shot likely had nothing to do with the Black Hand. In some cultures, having such monetary displays is a form of tithing. In a parish near where I live, the Mexican population holds a festival to raise money for a communal tithe. It is not because they are members of a gang.
Thus, I hope you keep these things in mind while watching The Godfather Part II, or any other film featuring immigrant groups and organized crime. I am not going to get into immigration history theory with you. Suffice to say, this sort of behavior, sans the unlawfulness, is not uncommon. Ultimately, this is what these movies are about: sticking with those who you know, primarily family. In this one, you see the awful price one can pay for not doing so.