I suppose everyone already knows the story -- Al Pacino as Michael Corleone rises to power in 1958, with multiple flashbacks to Robert DeNiro as his father Vito in the 1920s -- so we can dispense with a summary. Actually, the story itself is less important than the fact that the film naturally divides itself in two -- its execution and its moral message.
The execution is splendid in every regard. Coppola's direction is deliberately paced. There is a conspicuous absence of unsubtle and dizzying directorial razzle-dazzle, thank God -- a movie that doesn't give you a headache.
The performances are nearly flawless. There isn't a sour note in the entire cast, and especially outstanding is the acting of Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo (author of "A Hatfull of Rain"), and Gastone Moschin as Don Fanucci, who tackles the role with an understated grandiosity -- what operatic flourishes! But everyone is good.
The photography by Gordon Willis, as in its predecessor, is dominated by a burnished amber except for wintry Lake Tahoe where various shades of blue and a steely gray predominate. The production designer deserves credit. Nino Rota's orchestral score is memorable, a folksy melancholic tune. The script has some neat tag lines. When Strasberg and Pacino meet, they shake hands and exchange warm wishes, then when Pacino admits that he's going to kill a colleague of Strasberg, the latter shrugs, turns to his tuna fish sandwich, and says, "He's small potatoes." It's a chilling moment. The avuncular, sentimental old man is a ruthless murderer. That's the execution. The -- I don't know what to call it. I don't like the term "moral of the movie." Sounds like a high school term paper. And I'm not sure exactly what "intentionality" means in phenomenology, so I'll just say "intention." The intention of the film is thoroughly corrupt. Maybe Puzo and Coppola realized it, maybe not.
I think the director did, though. That's why he splices so much carnage into the rituals. Almost every scene of violence takes place during some sort of party or religious festival. I think -- I HOPE -- that Coppola was aware of the irony between the rites of intensification and the fact that the principles they embody are ignored almost at will. It's important to have your baby baptized as soon as possible, just as it's important to shoot a miscreant in the chest.
In a sense all the rituals, all the religion, are fakes. There is no license permitted, unlike Irish wakes, Polish weddings, or Russian parties. If, like Gazzo, you have too much wine and accidentally spill some on the vast tablecloth at an al fresco party, the glances are severe. No sexy dancing either. In a way, despite the faux gaiety, it's something like living in a prison, especially for women.
We're supposed to feel sorry for Michael who, at the end, is seen sitting alone in solemn grandeur, emotionally bankrupt. But Michael is really a rat who deserves everyone's contempt and execution by the state. It doesn't matter that he's young, handsome, well-spoken, powerful and rich. He's broken more laws than anyone can count. He lies, cheats, and murders at will. Those murders include an innocent whore who is horribly butchered simply in order to entrap the Senator from Nevada in Michael's thrall. He betrays his friends. He throws out his wife and prevents her from taking "his" children. He murders his own brother for a past mistake for which he's already been punished.
The original Don Corleone, Marlon Brando, had a set of allegiances extending outward from the family at its center -- to his ethnic group, his neighborhood, his co-conspirators in the business, and beyond that to some vague construct called "the nation." Al Pacino's Don has whittled it all down. At the center is ego, and beyond that, business. He's become a classical villain, a Richard III who has plucked down that crown, and if he now has buyer's remorse -- well, he should have thought things out earlier.
His tragedy is nothing compared to mine, which has been Shakespearean in its grandeur, really. In my adolescence, the love of my life, Juliet, poisoned herself. And when, in all modesty, I tried to become Emperor of Rome, the treacherous bastards assassinated me.