The rich and layered 'Godfather II' raised the bar on movie sequels

October 10, 2008|By michael sragow | michael sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

To explain what he loves about The Godfather: Part II, which plays every day at the Senator for a week (between screenings of The Godfather), the man who restored the entire Godfather trilogy, Robert A. Harris, uses an analogy from a more frivolous pop phenomenon: the Indiana Jones series.

"I had a great time at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," he says, "but what I liked most about it was that moment in the warehouse in the opening sequence, when Indy knocks into this big box and it partially rips open and you see it contains the Ark of the Covenant." The Godfather: Part II contains dozens, even hundreds of those moments. The whole movie, in fact, is built upon those moments.

In this still-audacious threading of two period stories - one featuring Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the successor to his father, Don Vito, in the 1950s, the other showing the rise to power of Don Vito (Robert De Niro) in the New York streets - every sequence either echoes or deepens the material from the first film.

The first film opened with the grandest ethnic wedding scene ever put on film, which Coppola wittily counterpoints with the Don dispensing Mafia family favors in his study. The second film opens with a lavish Communion party thrown for Michael's son. But the party is like a Las Vegas event transferred to the new family compound in Lake Tahoe. It contains hardly any Italian feeling: When an old capo from New York asks the band to play a tarantella, they end up goofing off to "Pop Goes the Weasel." And when Michael does business in his study, he asks for favors from a Nevada senator that the haughty politician is not ready to give.

The movie has taken on such stature, it's hard to realize that The New York Times and The Washington Post panned the sequel when it came out in 1974. The rap on Part II was that Coppola's guilty conscience had driven him to siphon out all the clannish joy from the first film. But Part II has its own sorcery and exhilaration.

Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), a friend of Coppola's, remembered seeing it when Coppola was still going through his creative agonies. His fellow director seemed taken aback when Kaufman told him that the sequel's reconstruction of Ellis Island and old New York were magical. The sequences of Vito leaving Sicily after the slaughter of his father, brother and mother, and his return to the town of Corleone as a don returning to his roots (and also seeking revenge), mixes the sensuality and melancholy of the first film's homecoming with an unprecedented grandeur.

It contains one of those layered-memory moments that Harris adores: We discover how the local don who helped Michael in the first film lost the use of his legs.

Everything about Part II is tinged with poetry and history, and sometimes comedy, too. The late Bruno Kirby as the young Clemenza brims over with warmth and mischief as he teaches Vito how to steal a pricey rug, just as Richard Castellano as the old Clemenza did when he taught Michael how to cook spaghetti, and advised an underling after a tidy assassination, "Leave the gun. ... Take the cannoli." (This amazingly funny and expressive line, which became the title to a Sarah Vowell book, was half-improvised: "take the cannoli" doesn't appear in my copy of the Coppola-Mario Puzo script.)

The Godfather: Part II was the movie that turned sequel-making from a rip-off industry to an artistic challenge. And its stature was hard-won. Two weeks ago, Gordon Willis, cinematographer on all three Godfather films, recalled, "Part II was a lot more work. It was almost a full year of shooting that required lots of preparation and contained some sets and locations that were very difficult to light."

Willis sounds even more pleased with the sequel than he is with the original. He's proud of his and Coppola's ability to make circa-1900 New York feel like a living past without resorting to obvious devices like black and white. They did it partly by packing in period detail but also by staying true to the visual structure and spectrum of the rest of the film (and the first film), yellow-red on the outside and sepia on the inside.

What's different about the visual style for the birth of Little Italy is the haze, glare and fog, often from natural sources like trash-can fires or a blazing religious procession. These lend the neighborhood a "mythic" feel. And, Willis points out, "It's very shallow, focus-wise - whereas the scenes in Vegas and Tahoe are sharper, colder, more graphic."

Those visual extremes reflect the film's emotional extremes. The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II may chronicle an immigrant American family's moral downfall, but it remains one our greatest artistic triumphs.

if you go

Screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II start today and run through Thursday at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road. Call 410-435-8338 or go to senator.com for showtimes.

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