'The Godfather: Part II' (1974): The Ending (Unedited)

January 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Francis Ford Coppola is probably my favourite director. In terms of his body of work, he’s made a fair few misteps but I don’t think any of those can overshadow his accomplishments with regards to the film Apocalypse Now! and The Godfather Part I and II.  In this entry, I wish to talk about the second Godfather film in particular, more specifically, the ending to the film. They say this is one of the few instances where a sequal has surpassed it’s predecessor. I’m not sure I agree with that, I’d have to watch both films again and analyse them point-for-point but in all honest I don’t want to do that. Both films are incredible, but different, in their own rights.

At the end of The Godfather Part I, the last scene is between Michael Corleone and Kay. After Michael has just told Kay that he didn’t kill Carlo (he lies), the next shot is him entering his study and from the point of view of Kay watching from the side room as Michael’s minions kiss his hand and call him Godfather. Al Neri then shuts the door on Kay (a portent of things to come in the second film), effectively shutting Kay out on a part of Michael’s life she can never know about. This ending is perfect.

The second film is a little more complex in its ending. The end scene is around 5-7 minutes long and commences with Michael reminiscing in the aftermath of Fredo’s assasination at his order. The memory starts with Michael, Connie, Tom and Fredo sitting at the dining room table as Sonny comes in and introduces Carlo to Connie. It is the Don Vito’s birthday and they are preparing to surprise him. During this time, Tessio comes in with the birthday cake which everyone around the table ohs-and-ahs at momentarily before Sonny starts talking about how the Japanease have attacked Pearl Harbour (“slanty eyed bastards”, that’s  Sonny, always one for tact). Tessio then comments how thirty thousand men enlisted that very day, Sonny calls them a bunch of saps risking their lives for strangers and Michael replies, that “that’s pop talking” and then comes out that he too has enlisted. Tom says to Michael how Vito had to pull a lot of strings to get him into college, Michael says he never asked for that kind of help, provoking Sonny into physically attacking Michael at the table before Tessio quickly breaks it up before it starts. This is a short silence before Fredo goes to shake Michael’s hand and congratulate him before Sonny slaps it away barking “go on encourage him” and Tom starts talking about how Vito and he had often talked about plans for Michael’s future. This obviously angers Michael who replies that he has plans for his own future. Connie tells everyone that Vito is at the door and everybody gets up to surprise him apart from Michael. As Sonny leaves the table he tells Michael to “come on come on, stupid” and leaves Michael sitting by himself, smoking on a cigarette. In the background you hear the door opening and everyone else singing ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’, all while Michael sits there, immobile, smoking on his cigarette. The screen then fades in to the present onto Michael sitting on a park bench remembering all this happening, music comes in, fade out, film ends.

Why I love this scene. Well, for a scene only around 5-7 mins long, a lot is going on. It’s such an incredibly beautiful and sad scene and so layered also, like an onion. No dialog is wasted, every sentence has meaning or expresses something which points to the character or reminds us of what tragedy is about to befall the Corleone family. It is both melancholic and nostalgic, we see old characters who are now dead, we see how things maybe could have been if they had only done things differently and survived and yet it is because of their natures that we come to love them and that they are also fated to perish. When Fredo congratulates Michael it’s very sweet but a reflection of his stupidity of not knowing that it was the wrong thing to say just at that moment and it’s that same stupidity that gets him killed. Again with Sonny, Sonny clearly loves his family, the way he playful pretends to fight with Fredo, attempts to wipe the frosting of the cake on Tom’s face or teases Michael by calling him “Joe Collars” and “collage boy” before kissing him on his head. Yet it’s Sonny’s hot-headedness, fiery temper and impatient manner that gets him ambushed and killed at the intersection as well as provokes the attempt on his father’s life.

Most important in this scene is Michael, a man caught between two worlds. He rejects and rebels against his father’s wishes at every turn. He is repulsed by the family business and wants no part of it. Not only that, he doesn’t want any favours from his father, favours which come from his mafia contacts. Again, he spurns his father’s hand by going into the army, rejecting his father’s expectations of him becoming a senator or some other public figure in high authority. But not only is this behavior a rejection of his family’s culture and background, it is simultaneously his attempt to adopt the American culture, to be an American. He goes to college, like a middle class American citizen, he goes to war for his country because he is proud to be American and when he comes back, he finds an American girlfriend, in essence, trying to rise above his perception of a abhorrent background. But Michael is not an American, he is Italian, he is the son of a Mafia chief and even he ultimately cannot escape his roots despite his best efforts.

When Michael eventually does come back into the fold in order to protect his father and by extension his family, he becomes not the warm Don Vito that we see in flashbacks, who, while carrying out murders and extortion, loved his family and his friends. We see a cold Don, one who is detached and remote, one who becomes increasingly paranoid and controlling due to the betrayals that happen around him and also very significantly in part due to the love lost when his sweetheart Apollonia is killed. As a result, any warmth which might have been generated within him is destroyed instantly and he is unable to love again. He eventually loses Kay and turns his household into one of fear and anxiety for his children, a home devoid of love, but only filled with apprehension and dread.

Michael destroys himself, sells his soul to save his family and in doing so loses them. He his attempt to become strong enough to protect his wife and children he becomes overbearing and completely unbearable to them. He would despise himself if only he had the ability to feel anything anymore. He has become a monster, to himself and others and he doesn’t know how to change back.

However, Michael was always alone and the scene at the end not only expresses his isolation but also his not being able to fit in, that he was never comfortable in either world and that this loneliness would haunt him all of his life. But part of the tragedy is that we can imagine things being different. Had Sonny lived then it is possible that some of his loving warmth would have thawed Michael and brought them closer together. Likewise with Apollonia, if she hadn’t hadn’t been taken away so brutally from Michael he might have been a more compassionate Don. Even with Fredo, if they had connected earlier or even if Connie had been there to support Michael, things might have been different. But of course none of this did happen and so what we witness at the end is Michael’s desolation and the tragic possibility that things could have been different. It is that recognition of hope lost and utter despondency within Michael and which the viewer recognises within him that makes the end of the film so melancholic but beautiful in its poetry.

The Godfather Part II is brilliant because Michael wins and loses at the same time. By the end of the film he has eliminated all his enemies, solidified his power base and is now fully in control of his empire. Yet Michael’s victory over his business rivals and the government is completely overshadowed by the dramatic and tragic loss of the only thing left in the world that he values, his family.

The genius of this one scene is that it pulls together everything in the saga into a concentrated burst and it works because of the context of which the scene is placed in. It only works because of what we have shared and witnessed with the characters of the story that the scene is able to work perfectly as the bookend to an incredible saga. In this one scene you can see the hope for the future that these characters hold as well as the seeds of tragedy which ultimately ensure that these hopes are squandered. This alone is the essence of tragedy, and why this scene is an incredible piece of work. It’s just perfect.

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