I seem to have fallen into the curious pattern of doing freeze frame posts on The Godfather trilogy in reverse. I started off with a moving little scene in Part III (pretty much the only scene in that movie that grabbed me, come to think of it). And now, a moment in Part II.
There’s a beautiful exchange in John Cusack’s Serendipity where he tells his friend:
That was an incredible movie. Might be better than the original. All right? But no matter how much you love The Godfather Partll, you still have to see the original to understand and appreciate the sequel, don’t you?
My friend Rajendran once referred to The Godfather as a sigma field, that is, a movie that defines its morality relative to its own self-contained universe. Therefore, when Michael orchestrates the killing of the heads of the five families at the end of the first movie, you cheer for him because you feel he is doing the right thing.
In the second movie, Coppola destroys this sigma field by making us see the impact of his decisions on his own loved ones, and how it leads to a vicious cycle of hurt and alienation. By the time Part II ends, you aren’t cheering by any measure. (This is one of the reasons why Part III did not work — the cycle was complete by the end of Part II, andwhatever else happened felt tacked on.)
The destruction of this facade of morality around Michael’s actions is the principal item on Coppola’s agenda, and he does it by making a very interesting choice. He tells Michael’s story in parallel with one about his father Vito’s rise from a penniless orphaned immigrant to Don Corleone, The Godfather. He tinges this parallel narrative in shades of pink, so that you feel like Vito was, above all, a moral man, a reasonable who just happened to be in an immoral and unreasonable business.
This is curious. Vito committed his first murder, that of Don Fanucci, in order to avoid paying up to the man’s extortionate demands. Sure, he was poor and the money meant a heck of a lot to him. But contrast this with Michael killing someone who threatened his family. His wife hates him for putting their family in a position where someone would want to kill them.
Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but consider for a moment what Coppola has accomplished here. Michael believes in the code he lives by, and his actions are consistent with it, but it still isolates him. It is when you think about the sort of cause-and-effect relationships he explored in the first movie and in the parallel narrative about Vito’s story that you realize how beautifully he has managed it. Not only are his own sins visited upon him, it seems like he’s paying for his father’s sins as well, with compound interest.
It is right at the end that Coppola has a sequence that really drives it home. In the narrative set in the past, Michael has just come home from college and announces to his brothers that he is planning to enlist in the armed forces for the ongoing war (WW II). Their instant reaction, other than to think he’s crazy, is to tell him that their dad would go postal if he heard of his decision. When Tom Hagen tells him that Vito has plans for him, Michael’s response is: Well, I have my own plans for my future.
You see him sitting alone at the kitchen table while the rest of the family goes out to welcome Vito who has just come home. A quiet, confident, self-possessed man with plans of his own. Then you see Michael in the present day, sitting alone. And it breaks your heart that it has come to this.