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THE GODFATHER VS. THE GODFATHER PART II

godfather_ver1THE GODFATHER vs. THE GODFATHER PART II
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Naturally, many people are divided on what the greatest film of all time is. However, if you check any number of lists tabulating this very subject, you are most likely to see Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER or its sequel THE GODFATHER PART II at or near the top of these lists. (I love both of these films very much but neither makes my Top 10.) These two films are beloved by most people who have seen them, but even those who love them are often torn over which is better. Having watched them back to back this week, I think I can safely say which I feel is the stronger film but first, let’s explore what led me to my conclusion before I actually divulge it.

First of all, let’s begin with the obvious. THE GODFATHER has the actual Godfather, by which I mean it has Marlon Brando in one of his most memorable and most accomplished performances. The man is downright frightening in this film and he strikes this fear not with force but with stoicism and what is apparently an inherent, natural ability to be intimidating without saying a word or moving a muscle. Whenever Brando is on screen, the film is completely unpredictable, like you never know whether he is going to kiss someone on the cheek or slap them across it with his ring hand. Brilliant pacing, cinematography and storytelling aside, Brando is what makes THE GODFATHER ultimately unforgettable.

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THE GODFATHER PART II has Robert De Niro in the role that made him a movie star. Here we have the Brando of his generation doing his best Brando by playing a younger version of Vito Corleone with the exact same fervour of his hero. We are witness to his birth as a mafia leader, which in the second film, is juxtaposed against Vito’s son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, returning to reprise the role that also made him a star), as Michael finds his footing as the new leader of the Corleone family. De Niro exudes the same quiet, disconcerting electricity that Brando did but the role itself is inescapably derivative. Of course, there is something exquisitely impressive about how De Niro took Brando’s performance and dialed it back fifty years or so to capture a younger, more unsure version of Vito Corleone, but he still had somewhere to start.

godfather_part_iiThe most distinct difference between both of these films is that THE GODFATHER II relies heavily on flashbacks to tell its story. As a result, it cannot help but lose some of the urgency of the very immediate, very present nature of the first film. Oddly enough, save for the flashbacks, both films are fairly similar structurally. Both begin with a party that establishes the current don and his position in the family at that moment; both end in a barrage of gunfire and murder that resolves all of the Corleone family’s problems in one grand swoop; and both films find the current don under fire early on in the film and follow said don then trying to get out from under that fire. In some ways, I would think that the love fans feel for these films is somehow swayed more one way or the other by whether said fan enjoy being in the present more or looking back at the past with fondness and nostalgia.

In many ways, I feel that the historical elements of THE GODFATHER II help to create a strong sense of family history and help us to better understand the dynamics in the Corleone family. By showing us how Vito became the incredibly powerful man that he was helps us to sympathize what Michael is going through. It also helps the viewer to grasp just how interconnected each generation is with the last. THE GODFATHER PART II also addresses generational differences by showing us how much the times have changed. At times, we may question Michael’s motivations and whether or not he will ever be the leader his father was, but we are also painfully aware that Michael is playing with an entirely different hand than his father was. The younger generation just doesn’t have the same resolve and intelligence that the prior one did so Michael must make the best of what he has to work with. Of course, Michael is also not the leader his father was because he never wanted to be in that position to begin with. Regardless, he often seems to be the only guy in the room who really knows what’s going on.

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THE GODFATHER PART II may very well be one of, if not the best sequel in film history. It takes everything that worked in the first, which is essentially everything already, and builds on it. As is customary for sequels, there are many larger scale scenes in the second film and the stakes are most certainly raised with the idea of the family turning on itself. That said, like De Niro takes from Brando to build a different version of the character at a different time in his life, the second instalment is not so dissimilar to the original. In the end, they are both meticulously crafted and brilliantly executed by all involved, but THE GODFATHER will always have done it first, and for that reason alone, I think it will endure as the superior film through time. Either way, to watch either of these films is to behold near cinematic perfection. And even though they are incredibly long films, you won’t wait either of them to end when they do.

On that note, I hear there’s a third film too. I’ve never seen it and never will. As far as I’m concerned, this story ends with Michael standing pensively in his boathouse.

Be sure to check out a new 4K digital restoration of THE GODFATHER PART II tonight at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, as part of TIFF’s latest series, Second Coming: Cinema’s Greatest Sequels. The film will continue to screen daily through the next week at least. THE GODFATHER itself will screen on August 8. Other films in the series include EVIL DEAD / EVIL DEAD 2 and BEFORE SUNRISE / BEFORE SUNSET. For more information and for tickets, visit tiff.net.

3 Comments

  1. The Godfather is the one film that I begin to write about, but then chicken out – The film means a lot to me, and my dad, and I find that I can’t put ALL of my thoughts and feelings about it into words.

    It’s (in my opinion) one of the best films of all time – it’s graceful and powerful – and I agree with you – Godfather II is a close second.

    Audiences will always be divided between which is better (Godfather or Godfather II) – but we can safely say that Godfather III (with all of its melodrama) is left in the dust of its predecessors, It’s also the reason why I’ll always hold a grudge against Sofia Coppola. Don’t waste your time on it – it ends the trilogy on a sour note.

    • I always find writing about films I love to be somewhat daunting. You want to do them justice and that always seems impossible. This was easier to write as I wasn’t really reviewing either film but rather just speaking about them casually. There are so many other things to discuss when it comes to these films but don’t let their grandness intimidate you from writing about them. See it as a challenge and take your time with it until you feel you have done your best. You’ll get there for sure!

      Some of the reviews I feared writing the most ended up being some of the best things I’ve ever written.

  2. Good post. I also rate Godfather as a better film than Part II. I’m in a bit of a minority, but I find the “present day” scenes of Part II rather tedious and quite derivative. Part II is fondly (and rightfully) remembered for the De Niro flashback scenes; the other two thirds of the film actually offers little that is new or unexpected.

    If you ever summon up the courage, I do recommend Part III. Other than the famously bad Sofia Coppola performance, it’s quite a good film, and brings the story into a modern context. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, so it’s a much better achievement than it’s reputation in some circles.

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