The Godfather trilogy is about a family of Mafia moghals spanning several generations and sprawling across different countries and continents. This second part of the series, like the first, won the Academy Award for Best Film. It is a human drama of epic proportion and whoever compared it to a Shakespeare play had a point. Although it belongs to the gangster genre, in essence it is an inspired study of human nature and destiny. This world of mobsters is a very human world, where family bonds are paramount, with a rigid code of loyalty, honor and revenge.
The movie intertwines two stories. The first tells us what happened before part one, titled simply Godfather-how Vito Corleone, played as an aging Don by Brando, and portrayed as a young man in part two by Robert de Niro, became what he was. Part one tells us about the final chapters of the mature Don's life, after his power and empire are already established, his death and the succession of the business to his youngest and ablest son, Michael, played by Al Pacino. (The movie will not make sense without seeing the first part).
Godfather II starts in Sicily when Vito is nine and his family is wiped out in a vendetta, and his hasty and furtive transportation to America. In several episodes, we see his ascension by virtue of courage, intelligence and charisma into a charming, successful and ruthless power of the underworld. In parallel, we trace the fortunes of his successor, Michael. The "business" expands as the chain of bloodshed continues. Michael becomes more and more ruthless and at the end of the film, we find him grim and unhappy on his throne, his own family blown to pieces, ambition still unsatiated. Like Shakespeare's tragedies both parts one and two conclude with the screen littered with a pile of corpses.
It is a film with many dimensions and hard to encapsulate in a paragraph. It is a tragedy of ambition, power and family relations. It is also quintessentially American and depicts the underworld with love, admiration and acceptance. For America has grown out of wilderness and it's past has not been entirely idyllic. The savage murders interspersed with Catholic iconography shows the criminal world as a familiar habitat well integrated into the social system perhaps with it's own functions and contributions. There seems more homeliness than strangeness about the ways, norms and customs of this world. It is an established sub-culture. As they say America loves her gangsters.
Coppola has a sense of dramatic grandeur of mixing the sacred with the violent. Vito's first murder is celebrated with a grand fire work display as crowds swell in the illuminated New York streets. It is the casting of the die, a coronation, and a coming of age. In part one, the baptism of Michael's first son in a grand church ceremony as the organ churns sublimely, and his succession to the blood red worn out seat of power was interspersed with a macabre chain of killings to eliminate each of the enemies of the Corleone dynasty. If the Corleones did not have the destiny to be rulers of the criminal world, they may have been something great, and Coppola sees the grandeur in this saga of human ascent and decline. Perhaps the film is about love for the canvas of America. The Godfather series is an epic in three Acts and America in all it's largeness is it's grand theme.
One of the best sequences depicts the nine year old Vito's arrival in America. On a magenta tinted screen the Statue of Liberaty swings into view-the first step into a new world. Like Shakespeare, Coppola mixes murder, poetry and drama in a heady celebration of life.