The Godfather Part II may well be the most ambitious film ever made about the Italian-American twentieth century. Picking up where The Godfather left off, one half of the film follows Michael Corleone in the 1960s, in the wake of the Corleone family’s relocation from New York to Lake Tahoe. The other half of the film deals with the earlier life of Vito Corleone, both as a young boy in Italy, and after his immigration to New York in the 1910s, where he is played in sepia-tinted flashbacks by Robert De Niro. While Godfather II is longer than Godfather, it’s also tighter – moving between past and present settles the episodic structure of the first film into a clearer rhythm, while there’s actually less material set in the present, despite the extended running time. In the process, Godfather II often seems to revise and query the first film as a second or third generation fantasy about the Mafia, at least in the 1960s scenes, since the historical scenes often double down on this fantasy. In fact, the fantasy of the Mafia – and the way that ceremony and spectacle has sustained that fantasy – is very much the subject matter of Godfather II, so it’s no surprise that this was easily the most ambitious and spectacular of Francis Ford Coppola’s films to date, as well as one of the high points both of his own career and of the artistic visions of New Hollywood.
Since spectacle plays such a key role, and since Godfather II effectively plays as two intertwined films, the iconic opening scene of Godfather – Connie’s wedding – is here splintered into two very different, but complementary, opening ceremonies. The very first scene is embedded more emphatically in the old country than anything we see in Godfather – and ruptured even more dramatically – as the family of nine-year old Vito are killed in Sicily in 1901, after his father insults the local Mafia boss, Don Ciccio. The film starts with the second stage in this process – the murder of Vito’s brother, Paolo – which takes place while Vito, Paolo and his mother are marching in the parade for his father’s funeral. This momentary vision of Italian community is ruptured by gunshots ringing out across the landscape, which strike Paolo, and spare Vito’s mother, only for Don Ciccio to murder her when she comes to his house to beg for mercy, before Vito just manages to get away. The visual syntax of Connie’s wedding – specifically the alternation between inky interiors and bright exteriors – is now transplanted onto this second opening scene, as Vito takes refuge during his town the following night, and then escapes, hidden, through the bright Italian landscape the next morning, making his way to the United States as soon as he possibly can.
In this superb opening sequence, Coppola indicates that Godfather II will intensify the more sentimental and nostalgic elements of Godfather, but also rupture them even more dramatically – especially when they converge on ceremonial and spectacular invocations of the Italian homeland. This process continues with a complementary scene set in the late 1950s, shortly after Michael and his family have moved to Lake Tahoe – a family reunion and celebration of the Corleone family’s philanthropic work in the area. While this scene recalls many of the details of Connie’s wedding in the first film, the very fact that it is taking place in Tahoe indicates that the New York Italian-American community of Godfather has deteriorated, as has the structure of the Corleone family itself. The first person we see here is Connie, but she’s no longer the bride in Godfather II. Instead, we meet her introducing the new man in her life, and awkwardly encouraging him to call her mother “Mama,” even as her mother reproaches for having been in Tahoe for a full week without seeing her children.
If the family structure has waned during these opening scenes, so has the sense of an authentic Italian-American community. Rather than celebrating a genuine milestone, or a consolidation of family, this event at the Tahoe house is a PR stunt, a vision of Italian-American authenticity that is designed in part to broker important political connections with a local senator. The family photograph of the first film is now replaced with Kay handing a cheque to this senator, while the conversations with Michael that take place inside have none of the familial reverence of Vito’s audiences in Godfather, nor any sense of the Mafia as a family structure. The focus is exclusively on business, starting with the senator, who opens by telling Michael that he hates doing business with him, hates the Corleone family, and hates the migration of Italian-Americans to Nevada, but is only conferring with him because it is good for business, and for his constituents. Very few of Michael’s associates are Italian-American anymore, while the only person at the event who requests a traditional Italian song is conspicuously drunk, abject, ignored by the crowd, and mocked by the bandleaders, who instead play him a sarcastic rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” as he tries to sing – light years away from the veneration of folk music at the start of the first film.
This abrupt shift from Vito’s story to Michael’s story indicates that Godfather II will move between two very different types of migration – the great waves of Italian-American migration to the East Coast of the United States in the early twentieth-century, and the subsequent migration of East Coast Italian-Americans into the heartland in the 1950s and 1960s. More specifically, Michael spends much of the film migrating the family business away from the traditional East Coast rackets towards a new postmodern economy of images, spectacles and markets – and ultimately commands the family by investing in spectacle and public relations as a new source of income. Early in the film, Hyman Roth, one of Michael’s associates, played by Lee Strasberg, invokes Moe Greene, a fictional composite of Vegas gangsters Moe Dalitz and Gus Greenbaum, as the most significant gangster of the twentieth-century. The reason, Roth argues, is because Greene didn’t simply traffic in gambling, theft and narcotics, but “invented” Las Vegas as a gangster city, where he converged these traditional criminal enterprises with a new spectacular imperative – and used spectacle to distribute criminal products to an unimagined and unprecedented degree.
Coppola foregrounded this link between Mafia and media spectacle from the very beginning of Godfather, which starts with Tom Hagen travelling to Hollywood to force a more synergistic relationship between organised crime and the film industry. However, Godfather II introduces a new and quite distinct image sphere, a hyperreal expansion of space that creates more opportunities, but also a different kind of vulnerability for those, like Michael, who try to negotiate and exploit it. The first major event in the film following the first two ceremonies is an assassination attempt on Michael’s family that comes from an intruder who approaches his property from the broad expanse of the lake – the widest vista that we have seen in Coppola’s filmography until this moment. Similarly, this postmodern image sphere desecrates bodies in new and eerie ways, from the prostitute who turns up dead in the senator’s bed, without any clear explanation of how her head came to be bashed in, to the fetishistic and sacrificial spectacle that plays in the background at a Vegas nightclub when Michael realises, for the first time, that his brother Fredo has betrayed him. These moments anticipate the lurid post-gangster horror of the 1990s, and its movement between Catholic and corporate tropes, while also anticipating the events of Godfather III, which cemented the foundations for this next major wave of Italian-American genre cinema.
Between Godfather and Godfather II, then, Coppola shifts from a modernist to postmodern gangster milieu, while examining the different kinds of spatial and economic vulnerability this shift entails. So enmeshed in its postmodern present is the film, however, that it can never reach back to the flashback sequences to provide a source of stable historical referentiality outside of the image sphere that Michael manipulates around him. Instead, the flashback sequences focus on Italian immigrants trying to understand and mediate their new mixed nationality through precisely the shared spectacle that Michael recognises as such an asset in the present. We first see De Niro as Vito when he is watching a picaresque combination of vaudeville and opera about a man who is missing his mother back in the old country. This is also the scene where Vito first encounters the Mafia presence in New York, through a series of backstage scenes that don’t seem any less theatrical than those occurring onstage. Rather than discovering in Vito’s youth a tangible connection to the old country, these flashbacks are presented as yet another spectacular effect, and yet another investment in the nostalgic spectacle that has made the Corleones so powerful in the present, even as this authentic Italian identity has been leached from their daily experience.
Godfather II therefore cements ceremony and spectacle as the main subject matter of the trilogy, which is most fascinated by the Mafia as a form of mediation – a spectacular convergence that Italian-Americans used to situate themselves in a new country and economic milieu. Within that broad spectacular field, the Mafia is both incidental and inevitable, and above all inextricable from the broader ceremonial orientations that help define Italian-Americans against both Italians and Americans. In Coppola’s vision, the Mafia is very much an Italian-American entity, or is most compelling as an Italian-American entity, bridging the gap between feudal and capitalist notions of family in ways that become more dissonant as the film proceeds. In the flashback scenes, this tends to split the Mafia into two guises – a corrupt, coercive, criminal enterprise, as embodied by Vito’s original boss Fanucci, who grew up in the old country; and as a necessary counterpoint to the excesses of American capitalism, best handled by younger immigrants like Vito, who are more fluidly Italian-American, and more amenable to the flexible orientations of a combined nationality.
For that reason, Vito often seems to have reinvented the Mafia on American shores, as an Italian-American institution, and as an experiment in Italian-American neighborliness, rather than just transplanting criminal structures from the old country, as occurs with Fanucci. Vito himself performs his first Mafia favour almost through osmosis, as a result of neighborliness, when the man in the next apartment sees him across the light well, calls out to him, and asks him to take care of a package while his own home is being searched by police. At the other end of his apprenticeship in the Mafia, Vito chooses to assassinate Fanucci during the parade of the Madonna – a spectacle that symbolically reconciles Italian Catholicism with American capitalism, as the Virgin Mary is escorted throughout Little Italy as dollar bills are handed out to the rapturous and adoring crowd. This is arguably the central spectacle of the entire trilogy, and takes place about halfway through the film, fusing police, citizens and Mafia and reconciling Italy and America into one fleeting moment of Italian-American ecumenicism. Seamlessly absorbing Vito’s assassination of Fanucci into the parade, this sequence is the most pivotal in setting up the broad narrative sweep of the trilogy, establishing Vito as the harbinger of the Italian-American community that it elegises.
By the time we return to the present tense of Godfather II, however, this community has been largely deracinated. In the opening scenes, Michael announces that he will be naming Tom Hagen as his successor, rather than his brother Fredo, completing his westward expansion by envisaging the first non-Italian Don in the history of the Italian-American Mafia. Similarly, the only remnant of the traditional Mafia is Frank Pentangeli, who approaches Michael for support during the same opening scenes. Pentangeli is the oldest Mafioso we see, the only Mafioso who still speaks Italian, the only Mafioso who still lives in New York, and the only Mafioso with an enduring personal allegiance to the world that Vito created, reminding Michael indignantly that his side of the family “doesn’t eat breakfast in Nevada, doesn’t eat breakfast in Miami.” In fact, Pentangeli now lives in the Corleone compound from Godfather, but has entirely refurbished Vito’s office, which is unrecognizable from the first film without its heavy curtains and inky darkness. Despite living in the Corleone house, and invoking the Corleone name, Pentangeli thus doesn’t have a very clear idea of what made Vito Corleone such a distinctive Don – and his traditional worldview becomes more damaging and self-defeating as he weaves Michael into his web.
However, Michael isn’t the only person frustrated by Pentangeli, whose stubborn regionalism, and reluctance to travel beyond New York, quickly becomes the thorn in the side of the Corleone family’s effort to globalise. Eventually, someone plans a hit on Pentangeli, but even this doesn’t conform to the economical and efficient assassinations of the first film, instead playing out as a messy street shooting, with multiple civilians caught in the crossfire. Even on the brink of death, Pentangeli can’t inhabit the hermetic New York world of the first film, as this assassination attempt ends up taking him to an even more deterretorialised space than Tahoe, Miami or Cuba – witness protection, presented here as the logical fate of the residuum of Mafioso who are unwilling to commit themselves to an organized crime sphere beyond New York traditionalism. Even the FBI, Coppola implies, seem like allies to Pentangeli compared to the production circuits of Cuba and Florida, which offend his New York Mafioso sensibility more than capitulating to his traditional enemies ever could, especially when those circuits are helmed by Sol Hyman, a Florida Jew.
Pentangeli’s promise of testimony paves the way for the Senate committee on organized crime, which occupies the middle part of Godfather II. Along with the evacuation of Cuba, which occurs shortly before, these Senate hearings are arguably the spectacular centerpiece of the parts of the film set in the present, partly because they pose the greatest challenge to Michael’s own efforts to invest in spectacle. Between Cuba and the Senate, the Corleone family has to pivot towards a late capitalist world order while also escaping regulation at the hands of an American government whose own command of spectacle leads Michael to compare the committee to a “ball game…broadcast to fifty million Americans.” These hearings are, in turn, intercut with winter falling on Michael’s Tahoe estate, whose bare trees and muted palette throw the cavernous expansive of the shoreline into stark relief. Stripped of the accoutrements of the opening sequences, and the business decisions that have occurred there in the interim, Tahoe now becomes a kind of postmodern spatial canvas, a blueprint for the global spatial field that emerges after the embargo on Cuba and the commencement of the Senate committee – a canvas, or blueprint, that challenges both Michael and Coppola to create a spectacular structure that is somehow commensurate to it.
This is also the goal of the Senate committee, which provides an impoverished recapitulation of the entire Godfather narrative so far in order to impress Michael’s own command of spectacle upon the American public. When Pentangeli is finally presented, he is framed both as a specimen of the “old” New York Mafia, but also as an accurate representation of how the Mafia appear in the present, since it’s not yet possible for the members of the committee to appreciate just how much their own economic aspirations and connections now converge with those of the Corleone family – a convergence that becomes the main focus of Godfather III. At the same time, the hushed textures of Godfather are turned into an object of overt scrutiny, from the mathematical diagrams of the Corleone family, to detailed analysis of the word “Godfather” itself, both of which could easily reflect discussions amongst fans as they parsed the first film. As might be expected, Coppola’s attitudes towards the Senate committee is thus quite ambivalent, since these hearings effectively replicate the critical apparatus around his own body of work, ending with the blowhard senator who “explains” that “normal” Italian-American culture is not Mafioso, without any idea of how much the Mafia have now converged with this normality.
Both the Senate committee and the evacuation of Cuba thus prepare the way for a new register for the Mafia in the trilogy – an uncannily intensified normality that is light years away from the exotic immigrant textures of the opening film. Despite coming from gangster stock, Michael’s last big business gesture in Godfather 2 is making early investments in IBM and AT&T, paving the way for the more corporate-oriented thrills of Godfather III. In the process, Michael’s business family finally and irrevocably dissociates from his kin family, as the Corleone name and the Corleone clan diverge on paths that are never recovered in the third film. As the last act of Godfather II unfolds, no figure within the family can comfortably align themselves with the family, making it even more important for Michael to be a symbolic figurehead, even if this removes all trace of familial allegiance beyond the symbolic. The inky black textures of the first film, and the warmth of Vito’s paternal presence, only recur here once Michael has fully stepped into this symbolic role, but Gordon Willis shrouds Coppola’s scenes in textured darkness at a very different narrative moment – Michael, left by Kay, refusing to see Fredo, and deaf to Connie’s appeals, alone in the boathouse at Tahoe, because he can’t bear to be around his family, back in the main house.
This boathouse is the final space in the film for Michael, indicating both his symbolic centrality to the family (since this is the only place dark and quiet enough for Willis’ inkiness to emerge) and his emotional estrangement from the family (since this is the most isolated part of the property still habitable in winter). Coppola now takes this citation of the opening of Godfather a step further, contrasting Michael’s cloistered darkness with the brightest and bleakest space in the trilogy, and the most iconic moment in the trilogy – Fredo, shot to death, by his brother’s instructions, in the middle of the lake, beneath a rising moon. The sentimental string music of the flashback sequences now seeps into the present day, where it is neutralized and deranged by Michael’s final embrace of Fredo before the assassination takes place. As the boat heads out onto the lake, Michael gathers the remaining members of his father’s inner circle into the boathouse, but condenses Vito’s gift for aphoristic wisdom to one stark maxim: “If anything in this life is certain, if history’s taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” Sure enough, Tom’s last piece of advice, as consigliere, is that Michael doesn’t necessarily have to kill everyone who betrays him, especially when they are family.
Coppola now shifts to the most magisterial scene in the entire trilogy, as the film’s postmodern spatial field converges on the surface of Tahoe, transformed by the blinding light into a single spectacular plane, static and dynamic at the same time. For a moment, we glimpse the scale of Michael’s ambitions, the sheer extent of the spectacle that he has been trying to invest in, as Fredo is inexorably sacrificed to that spectacle, almost too swallowed up by the light for us to see the shot fired into the back of his head. This, then, is both Michael and Coppola’s final effort to negotiate this postmodern economy of spectacle, and forces them both to split the difference between present and past, as we return, briefly, to what looks like an additional scene from the first film – the Corleone family, Sonny included, sitting around a birthday cake, as Connie meets her fiancée for the first time, and the children all await the arrival of Vito, in the prequel to the stately Italian-American wedding ceremony that cements the trilogy’s nostalgic fantasies. Yet Vito never comes, the scene never lapses over into the wedding of the first film, and so we return again to Tahoe, as Coppola leaves us hanging in this fantasmatic zone between Vito and Michael, past and present, Italy and America, Italian and Italian-American, first and second-generation immigrants, and De Niro and Vito, as the three different timeframes of the trilogy so far – Vito’s heyday, Vito’s older age, and Michael’s middle age – remain atomsied and alienated.
For all his efforts to command a new image field, then, Michael can never bridge the gap between these key terms in the Mafia fantasy – not even when he makes the most drastic gesture of his career and life by sacrificing Fredo to the surface of Lake Tahoe. In the middle of that massive expanse of water, the Mafia fantasy of the series comes to an end, making Godfather III a considerably more muted and withdrawn film, but also inducing Coppola to try and outdo Michael’s efforts to command this amorphous spectacular field two more times – once successfully, with the sublime image economies of Apocalypse Now, and once unsuccessfully, at least in terms of critical acclaim, with the insane ambition of One From the Heart. As a result, something about the trilogy ends right here, and not simply because Coppola initially only envisaged it as two films. The dialectic interplay between the darkness of Vito’s study, and the sun-drenched brightness of Connie’s wedding, has been displaced by the dissonance between Michael’s isolation in his boathouse, and his simultaneous command of the amorphous spectacular field, the crystal-image, that sparkles at the centre of Lake Tahoe. In these final moments, we recognise Michael for what he has always been – a director, a cipher for Coppola’s own auteurist fantasia, and an incentive to spectacle proportionate to the Italian-American mythologies that haunt and obsess the whole trilogy.