If you could pour despair into a movie shape, it would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part II. Is Part II a greater movie than the one that precedes it, released in 1972? Maybe only by a hair, but let’s consider that fraction of a millimeter’s worth of difference. Coppola’s sequel, a tale of two dons, contrasts the early 20th-century rise of the syndicate boss Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando in the first movie, and here, in his younger incarnation, by Robert De Niro) with the slow unraveling suffered by his heir and favorite son, Michael (played once again by Al Pacino). Having left his native Italy as a young, trauma-scarred orphan, Vito builds a life for himself and his young family in New York. De Niro, in what is possibly the greatest and most underplayed performance of his career, shows us the pure averageness of the younger Vito, before he has any sense of his innate gift for both helping people and controlling them. (In one of the movie’s most extraordinary moments, Vito refuses the small act of charity offered by the boss who’s just fired him—Vito’s job will be given to the relative of a local mob potentate—and instead brings home to his young wife a perfect pear wrapped in paper. Her exclamation of delight tells you a thousand things about this man, and this marriage.)
And Al Pacino’s Michael, no longer his father’s reluctant successor, learns not just to live with his power but to love it, to his detriment: Pacino’s face is a shell of hardness with a million conflicts teeming beneath its surface—their vibrations, never seen but always felt, are the Brownian motion that keeps the movie whirring with tension. And then there’s the remarkable John Cazale, as Michael’s ill-fated brother Fredo, slow on the uptake but also haunted by his unachievable ambitions; his desolation is the essence of this family’s crumbling soul. Maybe it’s Cazale’s performance in The Godfather Part II, in a role slightly more pronounced than he had in the first, that’s the hair’s breadth of difference between the two films, the edge of greatness that can come from a single glance.
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