Friday, October 26, 2012

Francis Ford Coppola | The Godfather II

being strong
by Douglas Messerli

Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (screenplay, based on the book by Mario Puzo), Francis For Coppola (director) Godfather II / 1974

There is a horrible moment early in The Godfather II when Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) young son, Anthony, celebrating the day of his first mass—and after being almost literally swallowed up in the festive events for people he does not even know—is kissed goodbye by his mostly inattentive father. A conversation between the two follows:

                          Michael Corleone: Anthony, I’m going to be leaving very
                                  early tomorrow.
                          Anthony: Will you take me?
                          Michael: No. I can’t
                          Anthony: Why do you have to go?
                          Michael: Because I have to do business.
                          Anthony: I could help you.

Although Michael suggests that someday the child will help him, we know, echoing as it does with Michael’s earlier statement to his father, “I’m with you now,” by film’s end we know that no one can “help” Michael. Although Anthony remains living at the end of The Godfather II, his father has ostracized him from his mother, Kay (Diane Keaton), murdered his favorite uncle, Fredo (John Cazale), broken with his father’s gangland friends from New York, and done in one of the giants of the Miami-Las Vegas underworld, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). Michael’s mother, Carmela (Morgana King) has died, and his sister, Connie (Talia) has had her life destroyed by his brother’s various interventions “Michael, I hated you for so many years. I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself so that you’d know—that I could hurt you.”). The adopted brother, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) has been painfully, for him, demoted in the family operation. The bigoted and sleazy Nevada Senator Pat Geary has been brought into Corleone control, while federal government investigators attack. Despite Hyman Roth’s boastful statement earlier in the film that he, the Corleone’s and others are now bigger in wealth that U.S. Steel, Michael sits silently brooding at the end of this film as one of the loneliest men ever portrayed in a moving picture. In his office at the empty boat house, he is quite certainly sailing alone, with no one left to love him or whom he might embrace.



One of the reasons that Coppola’s second Godfather film is so powerful is because he is a study in differences or changes of generation. No matter how horrifying is the Sicilian world from which the Corleone family (whose real name was Andolini) had escaped, Vito’s father, brother and mother being brutally killed by the local Don Ciccio, no matter how lonely and isolated were Vito’s early years in the New World, the first few months waited out in a hard bed on Ellis Island, Vito, Michael’s father, was a man of love, a man who gradually surrounded himself with family and friends who were willing to do anything for him, as he would for them. Certainly that begat the nefarious world in which Vito ultimately created, but at its heart, his world was always filled with community. In the early scenes of lower Manhattan Italian life, the streets are teaming with people, filled with the energy of young and old, good and evil, clandestine robberies and public performances, selling/buying and cheating—all  rubbing up against each other.

      Many of these parallels are quite obvious. I have already mentioned the previous film’s beginning wedding, filled with joyous life, and the quite lifeless affair of Anthony’s coming of age, where the Senator hypocritically welcomes the Corleones (without once attempting to properly pronounce their name) to Nevada, the band cannot even imagine a song like “Luna mezz’ o mare,” whose rhythms can only suggest “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and during which the Don, like his father, meets with people—in this case to most deny them their pleas rather than accept.

      While Vito Corleone’s world was centered, for most of his life, in New York, Michael’s central focuses are now Las Vegas (which is never even shown in this movie) and a rebel-pocked Cuba which is about to explode and close itself away from mafia activities. New York, his father’s former friends, Clemenza and, particularly in this work, Frank Pentangeli, have been abandoned. The beautiful, if modest home of Vito, reminds Michael only of what his father taught him: “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Despite the gated estate of Lake Tahoe in which he now lives, Michael and his family are attacked and their lives threatened, something almost unthinkable in the old Corleone home.

     Perhaps the most terrifying difference between Vito’s world and Michael’s is connected with Hyman Roth, and the film suggests that descent into the netherworld from the moment Michael leaves his estate to visit the older man through Nino Rota’s descending chords and almost slightly sickening melody.

     Roth is portrayed as a childless man, living in a quite ordinary bungalow in Miami, watching, like any elderly retiree might, a baseball game (“I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstien fixed the World Series in 1919). About his darkly lit rooms (utterly different from every scene in the Corleone’s New York home), flutters his wife, attired a bit like Mamie Eisenhower, in fluted ruffles; Roth turns up the television and closes the door to maintain his privacy. Here love and loyalty are expressed in phrases of passivity, as he recounts his long-time friendship with Moe Green, whom Michael killed in the first installment of Coppola’s trilogy: “When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen.” Passionless, Roth has clearly made a pact with the devil, living long beyond the age one might have expected; as Michael quips earlier: “He’s been dying from the same heart attack for the last twenty years.” Even Michael’s attempt to have him strangled in Cuba does not kill him. Later, when Roth is homeless and unwanted by every country, Michael suggests a hit on Roth when he attempts to return to the US:

                       Tom Hagen: It would be like trying to kill the President; there’s
                              no way we can get to him.
                        Michael Corleone: Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything 
                              in life is certain—if history has taught us anything—it’s 
                              that you can kill anybody.

Such a philosophy might almost represent Roth’s own. But this time Michael succeeds, destroying even the film’s Faust.

      Perhaps, as Connie suggests, Michael has just been attempting, all along to “be strong,” but in his involvement finally with a man like Roth, he has taken the “family” as far away from the light—an essential symbol of home and hearth Coppola has used throughout his great works—as possibly could. Despite all the evils that may have existed in Vito’s home, it is impossible to imagine him brooding in the dark, and, as we recall, Vito Corleone died joyfully chasing his young grandson around the garden in a children’s game. The frozen present Don could never have bent his body in that way toward his son. No, Anthony, there is nothing you can do for your father; he already one of the living-dead. Crime may have financially paid-off, but there is no one there to collect.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2012

1 comment:

  1. This is great. I love it. Just watched the whole Godfather Epic yesterday, well, I started from 3 1/2 hours in because i've already seen the first Godfather. And i'm absolutely floored. It's so wonderful.
    The power of the loneliness of the ending, is an ending I would not have imagined, but it's perfect. It's true for the way he had acted since taking over, and represents the ultimate pay-off of having a disposition like his all those years.
    Awesome article / essay.