'The Godfather,' 1972, and 'The Godfather: Part II,' 1974

John Huston once declared that if you smack any one scene from a great script with a mallet, all the themes of the entire movie should start reverberating. That's why, even when this masterpiece about a Mafia dynasty deals with "business," it's still all about family. Director Francis Ford Coppola, with the help of original novelist Mario Puzo, pits the supposed sanctity and tenderness of the Corleone household against the cool impersonality of "the world." At home, attention must be paid to everyone from hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and thoughtful Michael (Al Pacino) to weak, clownish Fredo (John Cazale) and the sometimes-hysterical Connie (Talia Shire). But when Michael takes over from Don Vito (Marlon Brando), outside pressures fray clannish bonds. Variations on "this isn't personal, it's just business" grow more terrifying as the film goes on. Coppola derives accelerating tension and exhilarating epiphanies from the escalating confusion of business and family values. "The Godfather Part II," 1974 Everything about Part II is tinged with poetry and history, and sometimes comedy, too. The late Bruno Kirby as the young Clemenza brims over with warmth and mischief as he teaches the young Vito (Robert De Niro) how to steal a pricey rug, just as Richard Castellano as the old Clemenza did in Part I when he taught Michael how to cook spaghetti, and advised an underling after a tidy assassination, "Leave the gun. ... Take the cannoli." (This amazingly funny and expressive line, which became the title to a Sarah Vowell book, was half-improvised: "take the cannoli" doesn't appear in my copy of the Coppola-Mario Puzo script.) The first film opened with the grandest ethnic wedding scene ever put on film, which Coppola wittily counterpointed with the Don dispensing Mafia family favors in his study. The second film opens with a lavish Communion party thrown for Michael Corleone's son. But the party is like a Las Vegas event transferred to the new family compound in Lake Tahoe. It contains hardly any Italian feeling: When an old capo from New York asks the band to play a tarantella, they end up goofing off to "Pop Goes the Weasel." And when Michael does business in his study, he asks for favors from a Nevada senator that the haughty politician is not ready to give. The movie contrasts the cold, constricting present with a heroic past. The sequel's reconstruction of Ellis Island and old New York are magical. The sequences of Vito leaving Sicily after the slaughter of his father, brother and mother, and his return to the town of Corleone as a don returning to his roots (and also seeking revenge), mix the sensuality and melancholy of the first film's homecoming with an unprecedented grandeur. The movie is a modernistic memory play, a tragedy and an epic.
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