The Godfather Part II: Revolutions
The more successful the Corleones get as a socioeconomic machine, the less stable they are as a blood family. As Michael laments in Part III, “The higher I go, the crookeder is all becomes. Where the hell does it end?” The Godfather relies on our sense of memory to see accretion of symbolic value through the decades, and we may relate to how that perspective is applied to our own families in the present and how we knew them in the past, for better or worse. Photo albums give us a clue as to whether we’re on the ascendancy or not. As Billy Costigan quotes Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, “Families are always rising and falling in America.”
The Godfather films are a hall of mirrors constantly reflecting on each other. All three open with a family gathering, and each respective event gauges the family’s symbolic power, which always seems in inverse proportion with its foundational or corporate power. At Anthony’s First Communion, Vito Corleone’s grandson patiently waits for the holy wafer while surrounded by blond haired and blue eyed children. A dozen years before at Connie’s wedding, the environs were still culturally separate from the mainstream world of American law and government. The principle guests in the Lake Tahoe sequence are those who were outside Don Vito Corleone’s Long Island wall. We remember in Part I how Tom Hagen relayed messages to Don Corleone of Senator Cauley and several other political and judicial figures apologizing for not being able to make it, though they’ve sent gifts. We remember how Santino antagonized the FBI agents waiting outdoors, angrily spitting on their identification cards (“Goddamn FBI don’t respect nothing!”) and smashing a journalist’s camera.
The new Don Corleone has gone through the looking glass. The tango dancers on stage are 180 degrees from the Italian songs and dances that delighted Carmella Corleone and Pete Clemenza, belonging to a glitzier, glossier, and whiter America. The old-school Pentangeli, who apparently never wanted to come out West, feels that the ritual is drifting too far from Italian culture and tries to re-direct the band into doing a tarantella. Law enforcement officials now get champagne cocktails from the hired Corleone servers; photographers are roam freely; and most importantly, the special guest addressing the crowd is a U.S. senator, Pat Geary, joined by his wife. The “covert” payoffs are now publicly acknowledged endowments: Geary holds a check as he speaks into the microphone, saying that it is a gift of $1 million made in the name of “Anthony Vito Corleone.”
But in pronouncing the name, Geary removes any phonetical Sicilian flavor: “Anthony Vy-toh Cor-lee-on.” Was this the old don’s original dream? To have the Corleone family’s apparent legitimacy so grounded in artifice? Geary asks that the signers of the check stand up: “Mike, Pat – er, Kay," a mistake that, for an audience in 1974, attaches the Corleones to the corruption of the Nixon Administration. Instead of the godfather hidden in the shadows of the dark office where we can barely make out the whites of his eyes, Michael is wearing a light-colored suit and standing in plain view to receive accolades. A choir has dedicated their performance of “Mr. Wonderful” to him. He’s posing for a photograph not with family members, but with Senator and Mrs. Geary, the two men shaking hands and smiling, holding a plaque.
This is all an illusion. The pleasantries of the opening turn bad when Geary sits down in Michael’s office, and we are again in the murky water of underworld dealings, albeit with a slightly different reverberation, as the windows are often open and the walls transparent, displayed when Tom Hagen is sent out and looks back in. The contrasts between light and dark are both more extreme in some places, and in others, more muted: the underworld and the legitimate establishment co-exist in the same dark water (notice the abundance of fish in Dean Tavoularis’ production design, which of course ties into Fredo’s demise). Geary admits that he plans on being “blunt,” switching his attitude from honored guest to bellicose racist. Michael wants to settle an issue about a gambling license connected with a casino the Corleones are acquiring. Geary’s fee – which is a bribe – is $250,000, plus 5% of monthly profits. It’s an unfair charge, meant to “squeeze” Michael, and an insult from a WASP native to the invading Eastern horde, as Geary pronounces “Corleone” in a parodic fashion.
“I don’t like your people,” Geary says, explaining his reasoning for the “fee.” “I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country in your oily hair.” Coppola ironically cuts to the German-Irish Hagen for a second. Geary continues. “Dressed up in those silk suits, trying to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is I despise your masquerade; the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family." The mainstream ritual that implied Michael Corleone had steered the family out of moral ambiguity is called out for what it is: a sham. Even in the “morality car wash” of Las Vegas (as Scorsese’s Casino calls it), the Corleones are still Sicilian gangsters, a group separated from the mass of “decent” Americans (read: White, Northern European, Protestant).
Michael, with infernal cigarette smoke drifting from an ashtray, responds with reptilian calculation. “We’re both a part of the same hypocrisy. But never think it applies to my family.” All corruption is equal, be it in politics or gangsterism (an interpretation of the scene delivered for comic effect in Andrew Bergman’s wonderful mobster knockoff The Freshman starring Marlon Brando, where gangsters intersect with film students). One countenance simply has a better reputation in the masquerade. Regardless, Geary replies that the socially established power of politics and government are insurmountable, as he points the trinket war canon towards Michael, saying that he wants payment by noon tomorrow. He admonishes Michael for the publicity this day has given him. The establishment doesn’t want any part of this ethnic residue. The ghettos that we see in the flashback sections of the film persist, not so much geographically as psychologically. Progress shines in photography and stage scaffolds, but not in authentic discourse. The instant the office door opens, Geary is back to social performance, exchanging niceties with the wives.
Michael’s next guest is Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), who greets the godfather with “an orange from Miami.” Ola is here to talk about casino alliances with “our friend in Miami,” Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a Jewish syndicate gangster (modeled on Meyer Lansky) who is ailing but actively seeking expansion into Cuba, a government that will fully cooperate with the mafia's casino enterprises. Roth is established as another old school vestige and contemporary of Vito Corleone, like Clemenza, Tessio, and Pentangeli. However, his Jewish heritage is cause for Pentangeli’s dismay: Pentangeli warns Michael, “Your father respected Hyman Roth, your father did business with Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth, or his Sicilian messenger boy Johnny Ola!” Michael doing business with Roth is to "take a Jew over your own blood."
Michael wants to establish new alliances in a pursuit for legitimacy, but Pentangeli clings to fusty tribalism, or as he calls the present situation, “a street thing.” Pentangeli blames Roth and the mysterious Rossotto brothers for Clemenza’s death in a bid to take over old Corleone territory. Because of Roth’s association with the Rossottos, Michael is in something of a political dilemma. “I want those Rossottos dead!” Pentangeli demands. “No,” is Michael’s answer. Pentangeli immediately responds in Italian, “Morte.”
This is the most unsettling contrast between the godfathers of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and it points to Michael’s insecurities. Whereas Don Vito was a man held in awe, venerated, feared, and practically worshipped, Michael, despite his intelligence, calm, and lethality, is openly disrespected. First by Geary and his unreasonable fees and racial slurs; by Connie and Merle Johnson, who want money but won’t take instruction; and by Pentangeli, who, even though he is a Corleone caporegime, acts like he’s running a family independent from Don Michael.
This decadence in Michael’s family shrieks at the dinner table. We see Fredo’s wife Deanna annoying everyone with her lack of cultural knowledge and panache. The table toasts cent’anni, and she asks, “What’s ‘cent’anni’?” Fredo gives the proper pronunciation condescendingly. "It means a hundred years." Connie clarifies. “It means that we should all live happily for a hundred years. The family.” Then she utters a remark meant to hurt Michael, “It’d be true if my father were alive.” Pentangeli spills his drink and loudly disrespects Michael in Sicilian. We couldn’t imagine Don Vito presiding over the same table. Times have changed. What's missing is the certainty of the old godfather, a stability people in the ambiguous times of 1974 also found lacking.
The Corleones cannot tread smoothly in the worlds of Family and Society at the same time. The wedding in Part I was a hermetical affair, and none of the transgressions, from Connie, Merle, Pentangeli, or Geary, would have occurred there. When they did – such as Santino’s affair with Lucy Mancini – the offender, who transgresses in private, is shamed. It was a conservative and autocratic system, though Don Vito kept the family and business concordantly functional. Social circumstances – like narcotics – have changed the world. The way of the future is inexorable. Old Values have little choice but to die or adapt.
Poor Fredo, meanwhile, sits defeated next to Michael, apologizing as Deanna is carried off by Rocco Lampone. “I can’t control her Mike.” Michael kindly reassures him, “You’re my brother. You don’t need to apologize to me.” It’s the first moment of warmth in the film. Both brothers are trying to do something that their father was able to do so easily: control the structure, pull the strings, and be respected. The lament of Don Tommasino from Part I – that the younger generation doesn’t respect the older one, a Coppola joke being that for tens of thousands of years the young have never respected the old – is a perennial problem not related to a wide historical spectrum, but the life-span of an individual family that had long ago touched its zenith and can only go downward.
The end of the Tahoe party has Michael and Kay slowly waltzing. Kay is pregnant with their third child (in the interim, a daughter, Mary, has been born). In his quest to be more like his father, or perhaps because he senses something odd about Anthony, Michael is fixed on having another son. “Does it feel like a boy?” he asks. "Yes. Yes is does Michael." He apologizes for all the people who came to the house during the party. "It reminded me of something you once said," Kay says sadly. “You told me that in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.” “I know. I know,” Michael says. “I’m trying, darling.” As much as time affects people undergoing its changes, Michael is unable to get a handle on it.
Wealth affords calm domesticity. At home, Michael looks at a drawing Anthony made for him, with a check box waiting for the father’s approval. The idyll before bedtime is interrupted by gunfire: the open-draped windows (which are not supposed to be open) explode as bullets tear through it, sending both Michael and Kay to seek cover on the ground. The godfather's openness to society, much like his open windows, has made him vulnerable – either from without or within. Kay looks at him vindictively, Michael knowing full well how she dislikes “this Sicilian thing” and that it has imperiled her and the children.
Michael confides in Tom, believing that there is a traitor in the family. He wonders about his bodyguards. “Our people are businessmen. Their loyalty is based on that.” Loyalty is secondary to success and Michael, who is disrespected by Geary, Connie, and Pentangeli, envied by Fredo, and doing shady business with Hyman Roth, cannot trust anyone but Tom. “It’s because I admire you and I love you that I kept things secret from you,” Michael tells him. Hagen is the closest thing to his father that Michael has left. Should anything happen to Michael, Tom Hagen will be the don. This is another sign of times changing: in the flashbacks, a Sicilian ascends out of the ghetto and rises in America; women finally assume a voice and stand up to patriarchal order; the proletariat storm the streets of Havana; and now a German-Irishman is a step from becoming the head of an Italian crime organization.
The mirrors of The Godfather Part II call attention to the revolutions experienced by father and son. Vito and Michael understand that the “Black Hand,” be it the government, the mafia hierarchy, or a dictator, can be beaten. On the streets of Havana, Michael sees a revolutionary use a grenade in sacrificing himself to assassinate a military general, and he brings it up at a meeting with Hyman Roth and the other moneyed interests who are setting up shop with Batista. “What does that tell you?” asks Roth, uneasily. “They can win,” Michael says. The revolutionaries aren’t paid to blow themselves up. The reach of money can only go so far. Roth, even in old age, doesn’t see the contingency threatening his utopian plans. For him, peasants have been fighting in Cuba for decades. "It's in their blood." They’re small potatoes (to use his description of Frank Pentangeli).
For Vito, Don Fanucci also has the power of a strong-arm dictator. He owns the police and collects money from all neighborhood businesses. An opulently regal figure in white, he is similar to the “Mustache Petes” of Little Italy, who were bested by characters like Charlie Luciano. When Vito asks why he has to pay Fanucci for the work he’s done, Clemenza and Tessio spell out how dangerous the Black Hand is. There’s a maverick streak of rebellion in these films, whether it’s against McCluskey and the Five Families in Part I, or Batista and Fanucci in Part II. Vito’s inability to pay Fanucci is an “insult.” The prologue informed us that it was an “insult” that got Vito’s father killed. In Fanucci, Vito’s rebellion is born out of standing up to the man who killed his family. As Michael tells Hagen about the “unhittable” Hyman Roth, “If history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone.
The beginning of the collusion against Fanucci is echoed in Michael’s quote of his father: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” Michael seems to allow Roth to adopt him, and similarly Vito will impress Fanucci with his courage and calm, making it seem that he wants “good work.” It’s business, sure, but as we watch Vito stare at Fanucci (while the older man takes down his espresso), we can gauge how personal this act of vengeance will be. Fanucci is Ciccio.
This prepares the way for The Godfather Part II’s most elaborate sequence, the festa. Fanucci walks through the streets to receive adoration and respect from the citizens as Vito follows on the rooftops. Fanucci is blessed by a priest, tosses an orange in the air, and makes an earnest show of prayer to the passing icon. The charade is accented by the theater, when Fanucci stands to watch a medieval puppet show, joking “This is too violent for me!” Blood rituals are transpiring on the holy altar and the puppet stage, but Fanucci doesn’t know that soon he will be a more concrete sparagmos, changing the course of the neighborhood’s destiny. His power estranges him from the significance of the ritual, making him a strange double for the older Don Michael in The Godfather Part III, whose Commendatore ritual has the same music that plays during Fanucci’s walk, the Marcia Religioso. The Jesus decorated with money proposes the question of what god Fanucci is following, Christ or Money?
Vito has a gun waiting for him (like Michael with the Sollozzo killing), and descends into Fanucci’s building, unscrewing the lightbulb to cloak himself in darkness, wrapping a towel around his weapon to buffer the gunfire. Fanucci ascends the stairs as the priest is giving a benediction outside, patrons of the festa lining up to kiss Christ’s picture. Fanucci is about to go inside his apartment when he notices the unlit bulb. He curiously studies it, tapping it to make an intermittent glow (and so exposing Vito to light). Satisfied, Fanucci goes inside the apartment. Vito makes his move.
A number of things make this scene unforgettable: the tapping of the light, the slow footsteps, the delicacy with which Fanucci turns the bulb, etc. Fanucci has a very affable reaction to seeing Vito. As the young assassin extends his arm, Fanucci smiles and asks, “What you got there?” The white cloth on Vito's arm explodes and smoke rises from Fanucci’s chest. He tears his vest open, buttons and blood spilling on the floor. His scream is silenced by Vito’s second bullet going through his face. Shakily suspended in the air by brain damage, Fanucci abruptly collapses. Vito’s towel catches fire. Coppola cuts to the fireworks outside, Little Italy’s populace celebrating. This parallels the fireworks and ecstatic revolutionaries in 1959 Cuba. A righteous workers’ revolution has occurred. As Vito puts the gun in Fanucci’s mouth, firing one more bullet into the body, we understand that this revolution is not simply business. Revolution is personal.
The final revolution in The Godfather Part II is a sexual one. As evidenced by The Rain People, One from the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Dracula, Coppola is keen to how men of a patriarchal heritage take the agency of women for granted. At the beginning of Godfather II, Don Ciccio claims to have reason for fearing Vito, but never assumes that the widow in black would hold a knife to his neck, ensuring her son's escape. This is how Roth and Batista take the Communists for granted in Cuba, and how Fanucci takes Vito Corleone for granted in Little Italy. Finally, it's how Michael takes Kay for granted. Her abortion is an act of rebellion tantamount to throwing herself into a general's car with a grenade. Just as Michael can shut everyone else out of his private actions, so too can Kay, as the galvanized force of Woman, shut him out. “It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s UNHOLY and EVIL! I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this WORLD!” Michael’s eyes light up ferociously. Kay continues, “It was a son, Michael, and I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael, no way that you could ever forgive me.” Think of this in context of Fredo’s betrayal, whom Michael can’t forgive either. Kay addresses the root: “Not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years--”
Michael lunges forth with a slap, yelling “Bitch!” Michael has completely lost control over everything, absurdly declaring that his wife won’t take his children from him (“his” children, not “their” children). All of Michael’s bridges are burning: his link to his father’s generation (Pentangeli); Fredo; and now Kay; the abortion is the only method of revolt Kay has against the “Sicilian“ thing, and it closes the circle of Godfather II's revolutions: Vito‘s revolt as a poor peasant against the tyrannical Fanucci, and as we shall soon see, Ciccio; then the Cuban communist revolt against the Batista regime. Both are “impossible” successes, suggesting a kind of Hegelian-Marxist dialectic of the inevitable toppling of capitalist hierarchies. Finally, there is the woman‘s revolt against the patriarchy. Women, who have always had the door closed on them, now assert their own functionality in the oppressive and ancient family paradigm, which Michael is strangely blind to foreseeing (“There are things that have been going on between men and women that will not change!”). The most detrimental revolution in the picture may not be organizational or political, but domestic. Michael can build amazing social and political alliances and defeat the United States government, but he loses his wife, and ultimately any meaningful orientation as a family man. The moment, like Kay, is suddenly cut off (as opposed to “dissolved” as was the way Coppola cued all the other temporal transitions) with a jolt into the past: the family of Vito Corleone, perhaps around 1925, is getting off a train in Sicily, not far from where this exhausting narrative began.
So if everything changes, can you lose your family? Michael asks his mother this question in the dark of her Lake Tahoe quarters. Carmella tries to console Michael, misreading him by believing that he’s referring to Kay’s (alleged) miscarriage. No; he wants to know if doing the right thing can result in losing your family. "No," she says. "You can never lose your family." “Times are changing,” Michael says. Brother has betrayed brother, old friends are becoming informants and enemies, and formidable regimes are toppled by common people. Michael and the whole family is at risk of complete exposure as a Roth-engineered Senate panel has witnesses to testify against the Corleones. The Family, so insular and protected in the “good old days” of 1945, is flayed out on large pieces of paper, scrutinized and decoded. The hypocrisy of the American dream, as government and mafia become interchangeable, collide. Even so, Michael Corleone’s circumspect cunning, as a man so sensitive to the dynamics of family, saves him, even while his quest for preservation makes his soul a vacuum.
Originally written in the summer of 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
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