The Godfather: Part II
(American, 1974, 200 minutes, color, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
It is 1901. A small boy, waifish and wide-eyed, is hustled through the organized chaos of Ellis Island, the chorus of exotic languages echoing in the Great Hall bewildering him. A brusque attendant mishears an interpreter, and the boy, Vito Andolini, is assigned as his surname the name of the town he has fled from, Corleone, Sicily. From Ellis island, the skyline of New York City beckons the rabble of immigrants we have earlier seen sailing beneath the open arms of the Statue of Liberty. New York’s skyscrapers are temples of modernity, a symbol of a new world of security that the boy’s fearful friends pray can replace the medieval vengeance plots and brutal feudal loyalties of Sicily. Sicily, where the blood of the boy’s family has been shed in torrents. Sicily, where the boy himself is under an unappealable death sentence. But Vito Corleone can only glimpse New York from across the water. Quarantined with smallpox, he is placed in isolation. Thought retarded, the boy stares at New York, wondering and longing, singing quietly to himself. Waiting for him to make that hopeful crossing, we fade to black. . ..
He will never arrive in the New York of compassion and enlightenment. Instead, his New York is Little Italy, in the film a province of Sicily, a place on which the old Sicilian blood feuds have been mapped anew. He will resolve to end his family’s victimhood not by changing the age-old system of obligation and retribution that begat such slaughter and sadness, but by commanding it.
GODFATHER II was an original script. With the success of THE GODFATHER in 1972, Paramount spoke of a sequel, but Mario Puzo’s original novel offered little in the way of additional action that might be mined for the project. Creatively, Coppola used the opportunity to create both a sequel and a prequel at the same time. He would spin the tale of Vito Corleone back into time, deep into the dirt and sun and blood of Sicily, following his progress. At the same moment, he imagined what would happen if Michael Corleone, Vito’s son, continued forward on the same trajectory on which the first film had started him. The result would be a grand montage of the young Vito’s transformation into a padrone, a don, a ruthless, oracular figure out of the Middle Ages, together with the descent of Michael into a passionate stillness of the soul. As Vito "rises," Michael falls. We watch fascinated, as Vito becomes a Manhattan Machiavelli, while Michael becomes a Hamlet of Lake Tahoe, brooding on its wintry shore over slights real and imagined, planning restitution to a code of honor so Byzantine that even his own brother can fall afoul of it. Both are clinical in their estimations of a man’s worth to them, both are brilliant manipulators of a pattern of debts, favors, and reprisals, and both are fanatically devoted to their families. It is Michael’s fate to forget the difference between his blood family, the Corleones of Sicily, Mott Street, Brooklyn, and Nevada, and the extended criminal empire that bears the same name. It is a mark of Coppola’s genius that we somehow feel no satisfaction at what Michael’s cruelty costs him.
The film had the enthusiastic cooperation of Al Pacino, who plays Michael in postwar prosperity emotional solitude. But the other half of the story, particularly once Paramount rejected Marlon Brando’s intentionally outrageous financial demands for participation in the film, rested on an unknown quantity, the story of the young Vito Corleone. Coppola believed, he said, that Robert De Niro’s messianic intensity could fill in the years missing from Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel on which the first GODFATHER had been based. He had met De Niro during the casting of the first GODFATHER, when he had decided against De Niro as Sonny Corleone, a part that eventually went to James Caan. Coppola was intrigued with the young man already known as one of the screen’s most compelling performers: "Not that he could play Marlon Brando as a young man, but that he could play Vito Corleone as a young man."
De Niro drenched himself in the wine-dark world of the Sicilian immigrant, of their lives from the olive groves of their star-crossed island to the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side. Part of his already legendary research for his role consisted of an extended trip to Sicily, where what he found added a dimension of secrecy and melancholy to his Vito:
The people are wonderful and invited me into their homes. And yet, there’s another side, another layer of logic that runs through the Sicilian communities and that relates to who really runs the community. An obvious example would be that in time of trouble, you might call the police, but they would turn to someone else.
They have a tremendous disrespect for authority. This you understand from learning a little history about the place. For centuries they’ve been invaded over and over again so that the only people they trust are members of their immediate family. Ultimately, everyone else is a foreigner. Suspicion runs high. And although they are very cordial to you as a tourist, you are still aware of this. Sicilians have a way of watching without watching; they’ll scrutinize you thoroughly and you won’t even know it.
De Niro said that he went to Sicily to "find the threads of that man in his early life that created the power and warmth of the older Godfather." What he discovered was the profoundly complex character of a proud people, what "Kay Corleone" (Diane Keaton) calls "This Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2000 years."
For Coppola, his version of the immigrant experience also drew on a long history of cinematic representations of Little Italy, where Vito uses the pistol, the garotte, and the shotgun to exchange peasantry for the manor. There was THE ITALIAN, a 1915 film and a highly sentimentalized impression of the Italian immigrant experience, that was shot on location there, at almost the same time (1917-1923) when Vito’s formative years as a Don in GODFATHER II take place. There was 1950s THE BLACK HAND, a studio-bound crime film improbably starring Gene Kelly as a young Italian man, a Vito Corleone gone right. PAY OR DIE, from 1960, based on the real life story of the assault on the Black Hand by an Italian-American detective, had featured the same street festival as that which frames Vito’s great clash with the reptilian Don Fanucci. But Coppola had in mind something visually richer, and culturally far more dense, than anything which had been seen on American screens. He sought a sense of place that would, along with the Sicilian scenes, help to explain the way that Vito chooses. If Vito’s face, whether played by Brando or De Niro, was impassive, even sphinxlike, then Coppola would use thick description of Vito’s physical milieu to write the truth of his character on the screen. Production designer Dean Tavoularis chose East 6th Street in Manhattan, between Avenue A and Avenue B. The block was completely remade, its storefronts converted to the cigar stores, social clubs, butcher shops, and theaters Coppola’s grandparents might well have known. The pushcart-crowded block is complete to the dirt and dung on the cobbles. As Vito Corleone walks among his people on this block, first as a serf, then as a lord, we see him as he is, without apology.
A production photo exists of a smiling, relaxed Coppola standing on a roof during the shooting of the Lower East Side sequences. Below him, it is 1919; down the street, just out of camera range, it is 1974. In GODFATHER PART II, Francis Coppola lets us occupy two worlds simultaneously, as well, those of Vito Corleone and his son Michael. And we see each of those men, handsome, loving, and terrible, with utter clarity.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.