by John Hess
Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 1, 10-11
GODFATHER II is the greatest Hollywood film since CITIZEN KANE and one of the three or four best Hollywood films ever made. I think the film affected me so powerfully even after several viewings because it presents and plays on most of the now threatened bourgeois values which I was taught to believe in and respect—family ties, social mobility, the quest for security and respectability in a competitive world, the friendship between men engaged in the same work, the importance of religion, and individualism . I grew up in a large, newly urbanized, upper middle-class Pennsylvania German family whose religion was Mennonite. I spent the first sixteen years or so of my life surrounded by relatives; the experience was mostly positive and comfortable. As I grew older, it and I both changed. I left it behind, but deep inside many of those ideals and the childhood experience which gave then strength remain intact.
When Michael reaches out to Connie, who has returned to the family, when a confused Michael seeks the advice of his mother, when Vito Corleone’s mother begs for the life of her only remaining son, when Vito builds his family and gathers his friends—I am affected because these scenes evoke in me the past experience of and the present need for the community that is being expressed and groped for on the screen. The film’s all-pervasive theme is the warmth, strength, and beauty of family ties which, in bourgeois society, alone appear to meet the desperate need we all feel for human community. The counter theme and the real strength of the film is its demonstration that the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.
Thus all those tender, moving family scenes are immediately crushed by the needs of “business,” Coppola’s word for capitalism in the film. Connie and Michael never speak after the scene mentioned above. The next time we see Michael, after the scene with his mother, he is denying before a Congressional committee that he runs drug traffic, prostitution, gambling, and other “nefarious” business activities in the State of New York. Vito’s mother is shotgunned because the very existence of the young Vito threatens the business and life of Don Ciccio. Vito’s brutal murder of Fanucci is the prelude to his success. All the tender and moving moments in the film are only warm interludes among the lies, horror, brutality, and murder.
The idealized familial cohesiveness and the power this cohesiveness seems to assure the threatened individual in our irrational, dehumanizing society explain, in part, the current interest in the Mafia and the popularity of the gangster film (especially those couple-on-the run films such as SUGARLAND EXPRESS, BADLANDS, etc.). For the family is the last apparent refuge against the enforced socialization and alienation of human activity under capitalism. And while the defense of the family must be seen as reactionary during the transition to socialism, this defense is perfectly understandable. People do not defend the real, actual, everyday family experience, but the Ideal of the Family, the emotional communion it represents and promises, the special beauty attributed to it by bourgeois ideology (“And I take a Geritol tablet every day”).
To present and explain this complex interaction between our social system and our personal lives, Coppola set himself a large task without having the conceptual equipment—a marxist analysis of society—to carry it out clearly. GODFATHER II has been unfavorably compared with THE GODFATHER. The sequel, if we can call it that, does not have the fast pace and the drama of the first film. It does contain a great deal of sentimentality, repetition, and melodrama. By comparison with THE GODFATHER and THE CONVERSATION, it is an awkward, rough film which often seems on the verge of breaking down. Had Coppola and his coworkers had the time to edit the film properly, they might have produced a smoother film. But the basic structure and ingredients would have remained the same.
I'm second-guessing Coppola, but I see these apparent weaknesses as part of Coppola’s attempt to present his vision of the United States as he has experienced it. The slow pace, the repetition, and the lack of drama are distancing devices which are designed to prevent the kind of misunderstanding which surrounded THE GODFATHER.
“I was disturbed that people thought I had romanticized Michael, when I felt I had presented him as a monster at the end of THE GODFATHER.”(1)
The sentimentality is there, but only to set up the audience for the demolition of the sentiments in the following sequence. The sentimentality of Vito’s arrival at Ellis Island only softens the audience up for the lawn party in the first Michael sequence which follows it.
The film works, makes its statement, through juxtaposition. Either of the segments, Michael’s or Vito’s, or both connected in a linear fashion, first Vito’s and then Michael’s, would be the traditional dynasty film, such as GIANT, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and THE DAMNED. It’s in the juxtaposition, in the simultaneous presentation of the two time periods, that Coppola makes the associations necessary to produce a more analytical description of this historical process(2)
For example, in the Cuban sequence, which comes at the mid-point and is also the turning point in the film, Coppola juxtaposes a major Mafia-corporate deal with the advent of the Cuban revolution. This is as far as Coppola can go toward a socialist analysis. But only here is a counter force to the corruption of capitalism shown. Coppola can't deal with this important historical event very clearly. But one thing is clear: the venal gangsters, businessmen, and politicians, who symbolically divide up a cake with a map of Cuba in the icing, are thrown out by a superior force. This revolutionary force is superior because it does not rely on money but on the belief in a new and better way of life.
Coppola achieves his aim at the most obvious level by contrasting the rise of Vito Corleone and the degeneration of his son, Michael. The film consists of five Vito sequences, five Michael sequences, and a short coda which ties all these sequences to the previous film, THE GODFATHER. The transitions between the sequences concern the themes of family and business, the search for bourgeois security and its elusiveness.
The first Vito sequence ends on a note of sad hope. The young Vito, who has miraculously escaped the wrath of Don Ciccio, sits alone in a quarantine cell on Ellis Island, calling on the only community left to him—he sings a hymn. Outside the window is the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of the new, hoped-for community in the United States. Both the music and the image dissolve slowly to the first communion of Michael Anthony Corleone (Vito’s grandson). The juxtaposition of the ragamuffin singing in his cell and the wealthy grandson participating in a richly appointed church service indicates hope fulfilled, in fact, represents the fulfillment of the dream of all those tattered masses who passed through the turnstiles of Ellis Island. But this appearance is quickly destroyed by the garish, hectic, repulsive lawn party at Michael’s Lake Tahoe estate. Here business reigns supreme; the family has completely degenerated as have all the other familial affiliations.
The transition to the second Vito sequence occurs shortly after the attempt on Michael’s life. Vito sits on his son’s bed, bidding him farewell—he must leave on business. In the following Vito sequence the opposite motion occurs: Vito makes friends, gets into crime, and starts a family. That sequence ends with the infant Sonny playing on the stolen rug. From this playful, communal, nostalgic scene, Coppola cuts to Michael alone but for a bodyguard, to whom he never speaks, on a train to Miami. While Vito is gathering a family and friends, Michael is moving away from the ones he has.
The next transition is perhaps too pat and obvious. Michael returns from the unsuccessful and harrowing trip to learn that Kay has had a miscarriage (we learn later it was an abortion). Before this final image fades out, we hear the cries of Vito’s new addition, Fredo, who will betray Michael as Kay has done. The next transition is particularly poignant. After murdering the Black Hander, Fanucci, Vito returns to his now even larger family, takes little Michael in his arms, and says to him, “Michael, your father loves you very much.” Then there is a fade to black before we see Michael return to his nearly deserted estate, walk through the snow and look at his children’s abandoned toys. The depressing gloom of this scene bitterly mocks the nostalgic warmth of the previous one.
The next transition has more to do with business. Michael goes to his mother to ask if their father ever feared he would lose his family by being strong for it. From this question, and the mumbled comment, “times are changing,” we go to scenes showing Vito’s growing power, to Vito’s being successfully strong for his family. At the end of this Vito sequenc, the establishment of Genco, an olive oil company, is juxtaposed with Michael’s Congressional testimony. A silent, detached Kay sits next to Michael.
Family concerns dominate the next transition. Michael’s sequence ends with his argument with Kay about the children and his yelled assertion, “I won't let you take my children.” Contrasted to this familial low point is the arrival of the huge Vito Corleone family in Corleone, Sicily, for a grand, happy family reunion. Here the huge family sits around a table set outside in the bright Sicilian sunlight. At the end of this sequence, Vito waves Michael’s arm from the train window, saying, “Michael, say goodbye.” The funeral of Michael’s mother follows this admonition.
In the final Michael sequence, Michael has three men, with whom he has been closely related throughout the film, murdered simultaneously (reminiscent of THE GODFATHER’s final flurry of death and religion). Hyman Roth was a close friend of Vito Corleone and Michael’s business partner—in fact, it is in the deal he wanted to make with Roth that Michael had put his hope for going fully legitimate. Frankie Pentangeli was part of the Corleone Mafia family in the old days. And Fredo is Michael’s own brother. Just before the murders (actually Frankie commits suicide on Michael’s orders), Michael shuts the door in Kay’s face when she is too slow leaving from a visit with her children, whom Michael has obviously been able to keep. The film’s whole ending is a closing of doors, a settling of gloom and doom over the landscape.
At the end, there is the scene of the joyful gathering of the Corleone children, who are waiting for Don Vito to return for his birthday party in 1941. The initial harmony is destroyed when Michael announces that he has joined the Marines against his father’s wishes. The scene ends with Michael sitting alone at the table as the rest go out to greet the Don. Then there is a slow dissolve to the scene in which Michael as a small boy waves goodbye from the train leaving Corleone after the happy family reunion. The dissolve continues, however, to a close up of Michael sitting alone outside his house in the gloomy late evening light.
Only part of his face is visible on the extreme right side of the screen—the rest is nearly black. His hand covers his mouth and nose. Only his right eye and the deep wrinkles around it are clearly visible. It’s the two eyes which give us “perspective,” and Michael never had any. His single-minded effort to maintain and expand what his father created in the absence of any recognition of what it really was and what forces were at work in the world in which he lived, has led to increased power but also to the destruction of all meaning, to the annihilation of everything the power was supposed to insure.
Michael, as “America,” embodies a basic contradiction in capitalism between the luminous bourgeois ideals of peace, freedom, opportunity, love, and community and the harsh, brutal realities of the irrational economic system which encourages these ideals and feeds off their unobtainability. (The whole function of advertising is to exacerbate this disjunction.) And a one-eyed man with his hands over his face (his human expressiveness), being squeezed out of the picture by the ominous, dreary property he struggled and killed to obtain, is the perfect image of this ugly reality of capitalism. Few films have used such extensive means ($13 million) and created such beautiful images in order to show the corruption and perversion of the system which supplied those means.
But Coppola shows us more than just the rise and fall of a dynasty. The formal relation between the Vito sequences and the Michael sequences imply, if not directly state, a causal relation. The relationship between the two parts of the film is not a static comparison but a dynamic movement: from hope to realization, leaving the family to building a family, warm love to cold loneliness, questions to answers, admonition (“Michael, wave goodbye”) to event (death of mother). The film does not compare a success with a failure, but it shows how the success leads directly and inevitably to the failure. The seeds of Michael’s destruction lie in Vito’s social and economic success, his rise to power. Coppola in an interview implies the same kind of causal relation.
Generally the bourgeois artist, social critic, historian, etc., can only see the inexorable destructiveness of capitalism in psychological or moral terms. But Coppola’s honesty and insight force him beyond this limitation. He shows in this film how “business” destroys the coveted bourgeois values and the familial structures set up to secure and nurture those values.
GODFATHER II presents a constant interplay between the most sought after bourgeois values—family ties, social mobility, quest for security, male comradeship, religion, and individualism—and their destruction or corruption by business. Compare, for example, the scene of young Vito in the quarantine cell on Ellis Island with what follows in slow dissolve: the richly appointed church communion of the grandson. The first scene is austere, nearly colorless; the second is cluttered with rich colors, metals, and fabrics. The thin hymn of the small boy is replaced by the deep tones of a church organ. The hope of the United States seems successful.
But the church communion is immediately followed by the harsh lawn party. As this long sequence develops, we see that all the hoped-for values are a sham. The sequence itself is fragmented by the editing of both the images and the sounds. Coppola cuts repeatedly from the garish party to the subdued meetings in Michael’s study, from bright colors (neon at night) to the near darkness of the study, from the harsh dance music to the near silence of the indoor scenes.
The important center of this expository sequence is the transaction of business with Senator Geary, with Johnny Ola, representing Hyman Roth in Miami, and with Frankie Pentangeli, who must acquiesce to the Rozano brothers. Juxtaposed with this “nefarious business” is a demonstration of how far the Corleone family has degenerated. The profligate Connie returns home with a golddigger boyfriend; we learn that she pays no attention to her children. Fredo is shown to be weak and ineffectual; one of Michael’s soldiers must remove Fredo’s drunken wife from the party because Fredo cannot control her. Frankie Pantangeli’s humorous antics at the party point out how far the Corleones have moved away from their ethnic roots—everything Italian has been forgotten, now that they live in Nevada.
The social mobility of the modest, unassuming Vito provides much of the emotional warmth of the Vito sequences, which are narrated in the golden, over-lit images we expect in nostalgia scenes of movies since ELVIRA MADIGAN. As these sequences move along, Vito prospers through his hard work, honesty (with his friends), and his cleverness. As we all learned at home and in school, with these traits we can't fail—and Vito doesn't. Or does he? At the center of Vito’s rise to power is his brutal murder of Fanucci, and in the last sequence involving Vito there is the murder of Don Ciccio in Sicily. Of all the bloodshed in both GODFATHER movies, this last murder is the most horrible—practically a disembowelment. The murder of Fanucci is also brutal, bloody, and almost sadistic. I'm not making the moral point that these two victims didn't deserve their deaths—they certainly did. But visually the gruesomeness of these two murders conflicts—purposely—with the nostalgic beauty and charm of the rest of the Vito segments of the film. Social mobility, success, depends on brutality; this is the primary law of capitalism.
The sympathetic portrayal of friendship between men—family members or not—was one of the most endearing qualities of THE GODFATHER. In GODFATHER II many scenes evoke the same sort of comradeship which men in our society seek and which has become a popular topic in films such as CALIFORNIA SPLIT, THE STING, and many more. A good example is the early scene in which Michael, after the attempt on his life, turns over his power of attorney to Tom Hagen. “You're a brother, Tom,” Michael says. “I always wanted to be considered a real brother by you, Michael,” replies Tom, as the two men sit closely together around a small table. The whole mise-en-scene brings the two men close together. The scenes of intimacy and attempted intimacy between Michael and Fredo are also very moving. Even the heart-to-heart talks Michael has with Hyman Roth include this warmth. But Michael loses faith in Tom and kills Roth and Fredo, who betray him. Frankie Pentangeli puts all this in context:
“Your father liked Hyman Roth, your father did business with Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth.”
Capitalist competition severely limits the ability of most men to become very close to any other men. Hyman Roth says the same thing more explicitly when he tells the story of Moe Green, a friend of his killed by the Corleones. Roth didn't ask who killed Green because “it had nothing to do with business.”
One of the most curious and ambiguous subjects in all the Coppola films I have seen is the Catholic church. In GODFATHER II Coppola always juxtaposes religious ceremonies with something terrible while at the same time never showing that the Church does anything for anyone. No one ever seeks or receives its comfort. Vito’s brother is slain during their father’s funeral procession (which opens the film). The visually and aurally beautiful communion of Michael’s son is followed by the awful lawn party. The brutal murder of Fanucci takes place during a religious ceremony in the street below. Immediately following the murder of Don Ciccio, there is a scene of Vito and family outside the Corleone church with the priest.
On the one hand, one could argue that these scenes are there because the Catholic Church is an integral part of Italian/Italio-American life. But the juxtapositions are too loaded to be seen simply as local color. Religion is still an important prop of bourgeois ideology, and the Church also represents a community of sorts. But by juxtaposing it with its opposite—murder, hatred, brutality—Coppola implicates the Church in this activity. By showing the Church’s inability to comfort anyone, Coppola shows its impotence. It is one more bourgeois ideal that does not work.
Michael is the individual par excellence. At first one thinks of Robert Warshow’s analysis of the gangster as the man who fails because of his arrogant drive for success. The whole thing is more complex than that even in the conventional gangster film, In GODFATHER II the analysis is particularly inappropriate. In the first place, Michael succeeds—he has killed all his enemies and consolidated his power. What we see is the destruction—external and especially internal—caused by that success. In the second place, Michael has never sought great power and wealth for its own sake. He has striven—as he always says—only to preserve the family. In the conventional gangster film, the characters played by Robinson, Muni, and Cagney set out on pathological quests for wealth and power. For this arrogance they are destroyed. Since they are freaks, their destruction is seen as perfectly normal; the direct connection between them and capitalism is masked by this distortion.
Here again, Coppola’s honesty provides insight. Michael’s goals are those of any other businessman: security for him and his family, respectability, and opportunity for his children. Capitalism purposely provides no valid alternatives to the daily grind of worker or businessman. All are trapped in the never-ending quest for a security that doesn't exist. Thus the connection between Michael and the usual businessman is not hidden. Michael’s individualism is directly associated with bourgeois values in the final sequence, the flashback to the 1941 birthday party of Don Vito. Michael has enlisted in the Marines against his father’s wishes, because he has “his own plans for his life.” Much of the conflict in THE GODFATHER is between Michael’s desire to be a “normal” American rather than a gangster. Finally, in that film his loyalty to his family brings him into the criminal world.
Both films show the extent to which individuals are trapped, how it is impossible to “be different” without in some way leaving the system. At first Michael wanted to lead a different kind of life, but since the values he lived by were those of the system, and since the values of the Mafia are not substantially different than corporate U.S. values, Michael couldn't ultimately leave the system, or even really understand what was happening to him.
GODFATHER II clearly shows the destruction and/or unobtainability of the basic bourgeois values. They are not destroyed because they are inadequate per se. Family ties, social mobility, quest for security, male companionship, and even religious values all relate and correspond to real universal human needs for community, love, respect, support, appreciation. Coppola demonstrates that the social institutions—nuclear family, Mafia family, ethnic community, and the Church—upon which the Corleones relied to provide and protect these values, withered before the irrational, destructive forces of capitalism, the main goal of which is profit, not the meeting of human needs.
Coppola builds up, interweaves, and finally destroys four levels of familial affiliations—the nuclear family, the Mafia family, the ethnic community, and the Catholic Church. Through careful juxtaposition, he chows how each strives unsuccessfully to create an ideal community. In all cases, the needs of business destroy whatever communal aspects these associations might provide. In fact, it is the very effort to conserve and support these families that becomes corrupted by business and destroys them. GODFATHER II works out on the level of human relations, Marx’s insight that capitalism, even at its best, must destroy human life and associations to exist. Thus, the more vigorously bourgeois society strives to achieve the ideals it has set for itself, the more destructive and corrupt it becomes. And this contradiction is most clearly visible in U.S. gangsterdom, the perfect microcosm of U.S. capitalism.
Thus, the major effort in both GOOFAIHER films is the construction of families, which are ultimately destroyed by business. Again, the film is very explicit. After the attempt on his life. Michael explains to Tom that “all our people are businessmen” and that all loyalties are based on that fact. In the early Vito sequences, much is made of the New York Italian community. In fact, Vito’s first criminal activity and the first “deal he won't refuse” revolve around Vito’s contempt for Fanucci, the Black Hander who terrorizes the Italian community. By making Vito seem like a Robin Hood character, protecting the community from the likes of Fanucci and the slumlord Roberto, Coppola plays a real trick on us.
The Black Hand was not an organization like the Mafia. Anyone could send a threat to a neighbor and collect money for not attacking someone’s store or small business. Often these threatening notes carried the imprint of a black hand (this was before finger-printing). Sometimes small groups of men worked together in this kind of extortion racket, but just as often a single individual would collect a little money in this way. Many unsolved murders in Chicago, for example, between 1900 and 1920 were attributed to the Black Hand. Anyone with money could be a target. Big Jim Colosimo, who ruled over Chicago crime from 1910 to 1920, was himself threatened by Black Handers. At first he paid, but then he brought in his cousin, Johnny Torrio, from New York to protect him—which Torrio did with great brutality. It was then Torrio who built up the crime organization in Chicago which Al Capone, brought to Chicago by Torrio, took over in the mid-1920s. As crime was more tightly organized in the 1920s, the Black Hand died out. But it is not true that men such as Torrio, Capone or Luciano (or Vito Corleone) protected the Italian community from anyone. They just exploited it in a more systematic way.
Be that as it may, Coppola does show that business does destroy the ethnic community; the Corleone move to Nevada symbolizes this destruction. The Corleones, in an effort to become legitimate “Americans,” have tried to remove all ethnic traces from their lifestyle. Michael’s insistence on dealing with Hyman Roth further emphasizes this change. The Vito sequences begin and end in Sicily while Michael’s begin and end in Nevada. For Vito the Italian community was still a viable source of support; for Michael it is meaningless except insofar as it has to do with business. He knows enough to bring Pentangeli’s brother from Sicily.
The Mafia family Vito builds up is equally fragile. The loyalties are now based on business. Michael sides with Hyman Roth, with whom he wants to make a big deal, against Frankie Pentangeli, who symbolically lives in the old Corleone house. Johnny Ola, working for Hyman Roth, is a key betrayer in the film—he gets Fredo to betray Michael. Being Italian has nothing to do with loyalties. Closer to home, sibling rivalry between Michael and his older but weaker brother, Fredo, mostly over power and business, causes Fredo to betray Michael and leads to Fredo’s murder on Michael’s orders. The relationship is worked out primarily on psychological terms in the film, but behind that psychology is competition for money and power. Fredo wants business of his own because that is the only way he can feel like a man. Economic dependence is a debilitating experience for anyone in this society—as the women’s movement has clearly pointed out. Connie’s hatred for Michael stems, in part, from financial dependence.
Finally, Michael’s own nuclear family is destroyed by the very requirements of doing the business that is supposed to secure it. Michael must constantly leave his family and finally becomes a stranger to it. As expressed in an early conversation with Kay, Michael had hoped to become completely legitimate, believing somehow that that would make a difference in his life and that of his family. But the dealings with Senator Geary and the U.S. businessmen and politicians on Cuba show what Al Capone always knew—the legitimate businessmen are worse crooks than the gangsters and hypocrites, too.
In a number of Latin American films—BLOOD OF THE CONDOR and THE JACKAL OF NAHUELTORD—the directors have used disjunctions in time as a distancing device to help them analyze rather than simply create a filmic fantasy into which an audience is unthinkingly drawn. I can't say how consciously Coppola has done the same thing in GODFATHER II, but the destruction of conventional linearity in the film allowed him to approach closer to a Marxist analysis of our society than any other Hollywood film I know of. Clearly, this device is one that U.S. political filmmakers should keep in mind.
1. All the Coppola quotes are from “GODFATHER II: Nothing is a Sure Thing,” City (San Francisco), 7:54 (Dec. 11-Dec. 24, 1974), p. 34ff.
2. For an interesting account of the editing of the film, see Stephen Farber, “L.A. Journal,” Film Comment 11:2 (March-April, 1975), p. 2.