I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1974 winner, The Godfather Part II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Robert De Niro. I first watched this movie about a decade ago.
The Godfather Part II picks up where the original film leaves off, following the Corleone crime family and focusing on Michael as he takes over. While this installment is not as well known or widely quoted, it's as good or better in many ways.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, and The Towering Inferno. The Godfather Part II also won Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (De Niro), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Music, and Best Writing (Screenplay Adapted from Other Material). It was the first sequel to win Best Picture.
After the death of his father, Michael Corleone (Pacino) has taken over his father's affairs. He finds himself exactly where he'd never thought he'd be: at the head of a crime organization. In the original film, Michael had pledged to make the family's business dealings completely legitimate within five years, however, now it's seven years later, and they are as deeply involved in shady dealings as ever.
Not only that, he soon learns that being in such a position means making tough decisions no one would want to make, especially when it comes to loyalty and family.
This movie also takes us back to Michael's father, Vito Corleone, as a young man. We meet him as a young boy who must flee Italy because of a threat on his life, and then as a young married man with an infant son, he is introduced reluctantly at first into a life of crime. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film, showing the parallels and differences between these two men and the choices they made that led them deeper into a life of crime. While the decisions these two men make are different, their overall purposes (to protect and provide for their families) are similar. It leads both of them to places that neither initially wanted to go.
De Niro plays the young Vito and does such a good job with the mannerisms and voice of the character, as established by Marlon Brando, that it took me a long time to figure out who was playing that role. To prepare for the role, he lived in Sicily for a while. He's one of only a handful of actors to win an Academy Award for role which is primarily in a language other than English (Italian).
Pacino reprises his role as Michael, a character who has, by this point in the story, lost every semblance of the earnest idealist he once was.
Like the previous movie, this film pays strict attention to detail, with period sets and costumes that establish not only Michael's world of the 1940s and '50s, but his father's turn-of-the-century days.
Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this movie so much was that I haven't seen scenes from it played over and over. This allowed me to rediscover the movie. However, looking back on the two films, I think the original movie edges it out, simply because it has so many big moments. The Godfather II is a quieter, more reflective movie. Yes, there's still violence; there's still betrayal, but the focus of the movie is more on an analysis of Michael and Vito, an exploration of how ordinary men can become criminal leaders.
While the films have their differences, you could watch The Godfather II by itself and still appreciate it. And that is the mark of a truly great sequel.
Rating (4 1/2 out of 5): ****
A successful sequel does more than simply recreate the original.