Everything is Relative
Family and Gender Relationships in The Godfather, Part II
written by Kathleen L. Amen
for CM 8321G (Survey of Film Criticism)
August 9, 1996
A list of the characters discussed in this paper can be found at the end. Click on linked character names in the text to connect with this list, which gives details about the characters and their places in the Godfather universe. The only review of a Godfather movie in my movie reviews collection is of
Part III, although The Freshman includes some nifty Godfather satire.
Spanning 60 years and touching four generations of the Corleone family, The Godfather, Part II (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) can legitimately be called an epic drama, an epic family history. The ancient miracle of the continuity of life, within generations and from one generation to another, is portrayed in all its wonder, poignancy and heartbreak in this film, accounting in large measure for its extraordinary power. We see representatives of two generations of Corleone males, Vito and Michael, grow from boyhood to adulthood, incorporating and reflecting their fathers' legacies, either fulfilling or disappointing their fathers' dreams for them. But in any event, their lives are beyond their fathers' control. As Pauline Kael expresses it, the "inability to foresee the effects of our love upon our children" makes The Godfather, Part II perhaps "the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country." (398)
Such general comments upon the nature of family history could apply to any nationality. But The Godfather, Part II is very much about an American family. The key difference is made explicit by Vito's journey to the new world. All Americans, other than native Americans, of course, share this common history: somewhere in our ancestry, either long ago or more recently, someone (or, more accurately, some two, but the focus throughout most of this movie is on the male line) made this journey, and this monumental fact, along with its consequences for future generations, forms an implicit backbone to the film. An offhand remark by Pentangeli, about his brother, near the end of the movie ("Nothin' could get him away from that two-mule town; he coulda been big here, coulda had his own family") sends us back to the film's beginning: what if Vito had never left that "two-mule town" of Corleone? It is a question all of us ponder about our own families at one time or another.
Despite the magnitude of the move from the old world to the new, which is reinforced by the grandeur of the scene in which Vito and his fellow immigrants first see the Statue of Liberty, The Godfather, Part II makes clear early on that basic human nature undergoes no great transformation merely by transplantation to the new continent. The figure of Fanucci in New York's Little Italy is analogous to that of Don Ciccio back in Corleone—cruel, powerful and corrupt. And Ciccio's prediction that Vito would grow to be strong and dangerous is borne out, as Fanucci learns. Rather than responding to the opportunity of a new land by making it a better world, the "seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought" with them create an equally corrupt society. (Kael, 397)
While basic human nature does not change, larger social forces, the environment of human activity, do change with time, and these changes are illuminated by the alternation between Michael's story in the 1950's and Vito's in the early decades of the century. The cinematography reinforces the idea that the modern world is more severe and unforgiving. Vito's story is shot with a sepia-like tint, a lush romantic glow that "makes movies once again seem a miraculous medium" (Kael, 402); it gives even the horrible things Vito does a poetic beauty. The 1950's story, on the other hand, places Michael in either harsh light or murky shadows. Michael does not personally commit any ugly acts (except slapping his wife, which, while shocking, is not on the same level as Vito's murders) but his remote manipulation of violence is seen as even more distasteful.
But in addition to contrasting different eras of American life, the parallel stories in The Godfather, Part II also trace the webs of family relationships back and forth across the generations in a most compelling way. The importance of family in The Godfather, Part II is obvious from the way the movie is honeycombed with actual and surrogate relationships within families, defined both narrowly and broadly. The Mafia "family" Corleone, the blood-relative Corleone family and their interrelationships are concepts informing nearly every scene in the film. The unfortunate prostitute killed to cement Geary's loyalty to the Corleones "has no family"; it is therefore of no consequence that she is murdered.
Each different type of kinship—father/son, husband/wife and sibling are the most important—has its own dynamic within the story and creates its own sub-structure of conflict and connection, loyalty and betrayal. Some of the relationships are seen in a positive light, but most, in keeping with the basically tragic nature of the film, lead to negative outcomes.
The central father/son pair is of course Vito and Michael. In the first Godfather (directed by Coppola, 1972), it is Vito's love for Michael that lies behind his dreams for his son—that Michael should be spared involvement in the criminal Corleone business. But, ironically, it is Michael's love for Vito that inevitably brings him into that business. The complex relationship between these characters, reflecting love, loyalty, similarities, differences, hopes and disappointments, is traced through the flashbacks.
Even taken by themselves, the simple points of transition between time frames make some interesting observations. Transitions marked by slow dissolves tend to point to similarities between father and son, whereas others, accomplished by straight cuts or fade-outs and fade-ins, point up their differences and contrast their differing environments. Most of the transitions are not clear-cut positive/negative comparisons, however, contributing to the complex nature of the relationship between the two men, their histories and their actions.
The transition after the attack at Lake Tahoe is a slow dissolve from Michael telling Anthony good-bye to Vito gazing lovingly upon the infant Santino; the similarity of doting fathers is obvious. We do not know at this point in the film, however, that this scene with Anthony is the only time that Michael will interact with either of his children in a positive way. Vito, on the other hand, is often seen carrying a baby or talking to a toddler. The fact of having children is important to Michael, but the actual raising of them seems low on his list of priorities, and this lack of real involvement in the lives of his children can be seen as one of the reasons for his ultimate emotional empoverishment, contrasted with Vito's rich family life. As Kael remarks, Vito "had a domestic life that was a sanctuary, but Michael has no sanctuary." (401) A stark fade-out transition marks the comparison of the festival scene (after Vito has killed Fanucci) and Michael's return to what looks like a deserted house. We leave Vito on the stoop of his apartment, where he tells the baby Michael how much he loves him. The tableau is drenched with irony, certainly, since Vito has just killed for the first time, has set in motion the accumulation of power and influence that will doom his son's humanity. But it is a scene of sweet, rich domesticity, especially as contrasted with the home to which Michael returns. There everything is covered with snow, with Anthony's new toy car abandoned in the yard.
Another transition pointing to similarities occurs after Vito's successful meeting with the landlord. He goes outside to see the Genco Olive Oil sign being raised above his office. This company, of course, is the front for the Corleones' criminal dealings, a commercial deception. The slow dissolve from this scene to the Senate hearings, where everything Michael and Pentangeli say is a lie, where Geary makes his pompous speech about "some of my best friends are Italian-Americans," and where one of the Senate staff lawyers is Roth's man, is a good comparison of falsehood through the years.
Finally, the sharp cut from Michael and Kay's fight to the Corleones' trip back to Sicily emphasizes the difference between the latter's extravagantly romanticized view of family unity and the disintegration of Michael's family. With cinematography as lush as the music on the soundtrack, we see the extended Corleone family in one gorgeous setting after another. It is impossible to imagine Michael and his family making such a trip together, even before he and Kay become separated.
There are other ways in which Michael and Vito are compared throughout the film. Examining the ways they each amass and use their power reveals some interesting points. They are both careful and controlled about their actions and their words, although in Michael's case this reserve is usually interpreted in a negative way, as repression of emotion and excessive concern with secrecy and access, while Vito's restraint seems more like simple dignity. Michael maintains a strict hierarchy of "need-to-know" in every aspect of his life and business. Tom can sit in on some meetings, but not others; Rocco and Al are privy to some discussions, but not others; Kay, of course, cannot participate in any meaningful conversations. At least some of those excluded react with varying degrees of resentment.
Vito actually does the same thing: he does not tell his wife when he has lost his job, and he closes the door so that she cannot see what Clemenza drops in their window (it is a bundle of guns); he also does not tell Clemenza and Tessio what he plans to do about Fanucci, just that he will "take care of everything." The difference is that Vito's wife and friends do not resent being excluded. Why this should be true is not clear in any rational sense, but it feels true, given what we have learned about Vito to this point. He moves counter to the normal flow of human activity, following his own keen intelligence without advertising it (indeed, often concealing it). For example, in the Statue of Liberty scene, he walks in the opposite direction from his fellow immigrants, who are moving to see the statue, but ends up with a front row view anyway; at the end of the festival, after he kills Fanucci, his purposeful strides toward home are a marked contrast to the relatively random activity of the revelers; he is described as "dumb-witted" by his own mother; and he feigns a lack of understanding in his first meeting with Fanucci. But the way in which his scenes are filmed invest his every action with dignity and poetry, as opposed to Michael's scenes, which emphasize either harsh reality or self- imposed secretiveness.
With the obvious exceptions of his murders of Fanucci and Ciccio, which undoubtedly contribute to his influence by establishing how dangerous it is to cross him, Vito builds his power largely in positive terms. He gives people a choice of helping him or not, of doing him a favor or not. If they comply, he will remember and be available to repay the favor at some time in the future. If they do not, he at least gives the initial impression that he does not mind. In reality, of course, often the person, such as the landlord Roberto, has no actual choice in the matter, but the courtesy of the offer is something Vito insists upon. Prior to killing Ciccio, of course, he is very courteous and deferential, a sham which shows he is capable of the same kind of deceptions that Michael practices.
But while this deception points to a similarity between the two men, we see Michael consolidating his power in more negative ways; instead of Vito's granting of mutual favors, of motivating people to want to obey him, Michael proscribes behavior and punishes disobedience. Several female characters have their mobility circumscribed by his orders, for example: Kay cannot even visit her parents, Connie cannot go to Europe with Merle, and Deanna is forcibly returned to the house when she runs out hysterically after the attack. His punishments are even more severe; Fredo is killed essentially only because he is weak and somewhat slow-witted. Wanting to be paternal, as Vito was, Michael only succeeds in being paternalistic, in the worst sense. He offers Connie, Kay and Fredo, at different times, to "take care of" them, to give them "anything they want"; anything, that is, except the freedom to dissent from his view of what is best for them. Whereas Vito seemed to understand those around him so well and anticipate their responses, Michael has no idea how much resentment his treatment of people engenders.
Perhaps part of Michael's trouble is that he is trying to be a father when he is, after all, only a sibling. The relationships among brothers and sisters in The Godfather, Part II are complex and fascinating. There is always tension between siblings, whether it erupts into anger and self-destructive behavior, as between Connie and Michael early on, or whether it simmers below the surface only to create enormous problems eventually, as with Fredo and Michael. The final flashback scene, with all the Corleone children together for the only time in the movie, highlights the importance of the connections among the members of this generation. With Vito absent, it is the complex of relationships among the brothers and sister that shape events. There is also the irony, of course, of Fredo's being the only one to support Michael's decision to defy his father, when we have just seen Michael order Fredo's murder.
The tension in Tom's relationship with Michael is somewhat different, and requires an understanding of Tom's history to appreciate fully. An orphan friend of Sonny's, he is adopted by the Corleones before the events of the first Godfather. That he still feels somewhat like an outsider is made explicit when he tells Michael that he has always wanted to be a "real brother" to him. We can see that his loyalty is never in doubt, so it is a measure of Michael's growing paranoia that he becomes suspicious even of Tom. He bursts out irrationally "can't you give me a straight answer any more?!" when Tom cannot tell him the gender of Kay's miscarried baby. And he grills him about the offer of another job in front of Rocco before they disagree about whether to kill Roth.
Siblings eventually become aunts and uncles, and while these relatives are of minor importance in the movie, some interesting character development is expressed through this kinship bond. Both Connie and Fredo move, by the end of the film, to the somewhat unexpected roles of nurturing aunt and uncle to Michael's children. Fredo, especially, shares the kind of intimate scenes with Anthony that a father should, and he obviously realizes, while Michael refuses to, that the boy desperately needs this type of attention. His scenes with Anthony, especially since they are directly related to the surroundings in which he is killed (fishing on the lake) give an extra emotional punch to that death, and make Michael look all the more monstrous for ordering it.
In many ways the most interesting relationships in the movie, however, are those between husbands and wives. All of the men in The Godfather, Part II, regardless of the time period, at best undervalue, and at worst, completely misunderstand, the women in their lives. This gender gap is most painfully obvious in Michael's story, but, as we have seen, Vito chooses not to communicate important information to his wife (known only as "Mama" in both movies) as well. The visual device of the closing door, which plays an important part symbolically in Michael and Kay's relationship, is also used by Vito, when he wants to keep Mama from seeing what Clemenza has given him.
Women are identified in terms of types by Fredo, when he tells Michael he wishes he had married "a woman like Kay." Fredo's wife Deanna only embarrasses him at parties. Pentangeli does not even answer his wife when she questions him anxiously about Michael's visit. Apparently "women ... are not considered dangerous enough to kill," either. (Kael, 401) If a man had committed as serious an affront to Michael as Kay did with her abortion, can we doubt that the supreme punishment would have resulted?
As important as Michael professes his children to be, he completely ignores his daughter, Mary. Upon his return from Cuba, he asks Tom only about what he gave Anthony for Christmas. In the scene with Connie at their mother's funeral, Coppola seems to follow suit; we do not see Mary, only Anthony, obeying their father's unspoken command to leave. We are just to assume that she will. Given that Anthony grows increasingly withdrawn, and is possibly seriously depressed, the buoyant and affectionate Mary would seem to be a healthier heir for Michael's expectations, but he is apparently incapable of recognizing this. (In
The Godfather, Part III, Michael—and Coppola—seem to repent somewhat by making Mary's character a focal point, not that the belated attention does the poor girl any good in that film; she is forced to give up the man she loves and ends up taking a bullet meant for Michael.)
The utter disregard Michael displays for his female offspring relates to his obsession with maleness. He asks Kay if the baby she is carrying, which must be little more than an embryo at that point, "feels like a boy." One of his rare emotional outbursts occurs when he learns that the baby was lost; not out of concern for his wife or honest grief, but because Tom could not tell him if the fetus was male. The roots of the obsession are unclear, unless we subscribe to Kay's opinion that there is "this Sicilian thing...." But perhaps it stems from the fact that Michael, who likes to understand every element of his world so that he can control it all, does not understand the women close to him very well.
The woman closest to him, of course, is Kay, and the course of their marriage demonstrates that his inability to understand or appreciate the most important relationship in his life results in his greatest failure of control. The hollow nature of their relationship is sketched out for us even before we see them at all in this movie, in our first look at their home, where a lavish party is underway to celebrate Anthony's first communion. The dancers on the bandstand perform a tango that is all show, a sham of romantic attachment, ending with a fake kiss.
Michael either cannot or will not communicate honestly with Kay, and actually communicates very little at all with her, for most of the movie. The first time he tells her a bald-faced lie is at the end of the first Godfather, when she asks if he had anything to do with Carlo's death and he says he did not. Just after this statement, a door closes between them, shutting Kay out of his business life. In Part II, another door closes on her, this time after he catches her making an illicit visit to their children. Between these two closing doors are doubtless many more lies, but all we witness directly between them in The Godfather, Part II are evasions and false promises.
Before she would agree to marry him in the first movie, Michael promised to make the family business legitimate; at Anthony's first communion party he tells her he is still "trying." We have just heard, however, in scenes with Geary and with Pentangeli, of planned expansions of his criminal empire. And Kay will shortly learn just how far he still has to go when they are nearly killed in the attack on their home later that evening. The look she gives Michael (they say nothing to each other in the attack's aftermath) afterwards is so intense that we suspect she might be coming to the decision to abort the baby at that very moment.
They do finally have an honest conversation, but only when it is too late for their relationship. Kay tells him in the hotel room after the hearings that she plans to leave him and take the children. Then he makes the first statement to her that is not some sort of deception or equivocation: "Didn't you know that I would use all my powers to keep that from happening?" Representative of their entire relationship is Michael's misunderstanding of the complaints she voices in this scene. He "knows" that she "blames him for losing the baby"; he is as certain as always that he has everything all figured out and can manipulate the outcome of this encounter just as he has hundreds of others.
The camera remains on Kay's face during most of his speech. She first registers puzzlement at what he means, then a kind of sick resignation as she realizes the extent of his self-deception. When she confesses what she has done, an act which is completely unimaginable from Michael's point of view, she begins with a weariness born of her long struggle to believe his lies, but ends with fervor, relating Michael's sins to those of his forefathers, making a statement against the history of violence in the only way she could: "I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world!"
The strength that Kay shows in this scene, defying Michael, or at least attempting to defy him, in a way that no other character has the courage to do (Roth attacks him, of course, but only deviously and through surrogates) is representative of the strong women characters that inhabit the periphery of The Godfather, Part II. Michael does not understand them, and Coppola, expressing his male characters' lack of appreciation of them, underplays their roles. But every female character with more than two seconds of screen time exhibits some strength of will, demonstrates some unappreciated skill, or at least articulates an important sentiment.
One of the most impressive women in the movie is the one we see first, Vito's mother. After losing all of her family except Vito to a vendetta with Don Ciccio, she embarks upon an extremely courageous, and direct, course of action in an attempt to save Vito. Given Michael's, Roth's and even Vito's normal modes of operation, which involve complicated feints-within-feints and massive indirection, the ultimate goals of which are essentially self-preservation, this mother's action stands in stark contrast. She is clear of purpose, certainly brave, and, in the end, self-sacrificing. In addition, she displays an intellect worthy of a Mafia don by anticipating Ciccio's refusal and having the equipment (a sturdy knife) ready to launch her alternate plan.
We do not see much of Vito's wife, Mama, and in the earlier scenes she is content to be excluded from whatever activities Vito chooses. She asks no questions about the rug Vito and Clemenza give her, only urging the crying Santino to see "how pretty" it is. She exhibits no curiosity during the dinner meeting Vito has with Clemenza and Tessio, not realizing that her husband is assuming leadership of the group over her spaghetti. But she soon learns how to benefit from the power this leadership brings, as we see when she convinces Vito to intercede with her friend's landlord.
The strength of her opinions, at least, is demonstrated by her angry reproach of Connie at the confirmation party, and by her thinly disguised contempt for Merle. She ultimately shows a lack of understanding similar to Michael's when he asks her how his father felt "in his heart." But she tries to help him, ironically by giving him the same advice he later gives Kay: have another baby and everything will be fine. Why Michael thinks she would know what was in Vito's heart, when Kay so obviously does not know what is in his, is something of a mystery, but his approach to her as a figure of wisdom reinforces the subtle power she still has in the family. His revenge against Fredo must be delayed until she dies, which is another expression of her influence.
Connie first appears in The Godfather, Part II as vain, self-centered and irresponsible. Then she is absent for a long period, only to return at Mama's funeral as a much more mature figure. She "forgives" Michael, placing her, at least in some sense, in a position superior to him. She also wants to "take care of him" since Kay is no longer with him; she rightly asserts that he "needs" her. Her new position of power within the family is heralded by Michael's embrace of Fredo at her request. We know, by the look Michael gives Al (who had earlier been told that Fredo is to be spared as long as Mama lived) and by the ominous mix of the "family" and the "Michael" themes on the soundtrack, that Michael has not truly forgiven his brother. But to all appearances he has, and only because Connie wanted him to. Her role to the end of the movie is of surrogate mother to Anthony and Mary, a further expression of her return to the family at a higher level of status than when she left it.
Two wives that are extremely minor characters in the drama nonetheless reinforce the image of women as having potentially more to offer than any of the men will recognize. Roth's wife has the appearance of being nothing but a dizzy blond. She wears high heels and capri pants, with a hairdo of piled curls. She is much younger than Roth, suggesting that she is a second, "trophy" wife, chosen for good looks that reflect upon her husband's prowess and status. But we observe when he becomes ill in Havana that she can speak Spanish well enough to translate for the doctor. While not being an overwhelming intellectual achievement, this skill is still surprising in a character otherwise presented as rather empty-headed.
Fredo's wife Deanna is likewise shown in very unflattering terms: she drinks too much at the confirmation party, flirts outrageously on the dance floor, and eventually has to be escorted out of polite company by one of Michael's bouncers. But she is allowed to state an opinion that fairly sums up the state of male/female relationships in the film: "Never marry a wop; they treat their wives like shit!"
Kay would certainly agree with the sentiment, if not with the mode of expression. Her strength in standing up to Michael, in doing the one thing that would wound him more than anything else could, has already been noted. A bit of background from her characterization in the novel The Godfather makes the desperation which drove her to have the abortion more apparent. She becomes a devout Catholic at the end of the book, whose events correspond to those at the end of the first Godfather movie. Her defiance of Michael, her determination to do the only thing in her power to stop the chain of Mafia violence, requires her to reject a key principle of her faith, at some physical danger to herself. Her sacrifice for a higher principle recalls Vito's mother's sacrifice for the good of her child. The unappreciated strength of The Godfather, Part II's women characters is a subtle comment upon, and yet another condemnation, of the lives chosen by its men.
Some critics who praised the "narrative drive" (Canby, 307) of the first Godfather movie have faulted the structure of the sequel, with its alternations of time, scene and mood. Vincent Canby complains of its "fractured form" (307) and Roger Ebert feels that "Coppola prevents our complete involvement by breaking the tension" with the frequent shifts between stories. (275) From the standpoint of narrative, the flashback technique does inhibit the linear movement of the plot, but the detours are well worth the disruption for the richness they bring to the emotional side of the story. This added depth and added poignancy amplifies the tragedy of the first movie's story, while the broader sweep of history that accompanies it "enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film." (Kael, 396) The dynamic of alternating time frames, of "seeing the generations of a family in counterpoint," far from detracting from the effectiveness of the film, "is emotionally overpowering." (Kael, 398)
When Coppola re-edited the two movies into a linear narrative for broadcast on television, the gain in narrative drive was overshadowed by the loss of poetic juxtaposition; the heartbreak of seeing the present fall short of the past loses some of its power when it is not displayed with such immediacy. Fiction, including fictional film, need not always proceed from point A to point B to point C. Sometimes a more meaningful journey takes a less direct route.
Canby, Vincent. "The Godfather, Part II." New York Times Film Reviews. New York Times Co., 1973-74. pp. 306-307.
"The Godfather, Part II." Roger Ebert's Video Companion. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews and McMeel, 1995.
Kael, Pauline. "Fathers and Sons." Reeling. Boston: Little, Brown. 1973. pp. 396-403.
Unattributed quotes are dialogue from The Godfather, Part II.
Vito Corleone—born Vito Andolini, son of Antonio and an unnamed mother, in Corleone, Sicily; came to New York in 1901; married Mama (who is never given another name); dies in first Godfather; had four children:
Tom Hagen—adopted son of Vito; consiglieri (counsel) of Corleone family; wife not named.
- Santino "Sonny" Corleone—dies in first Godfather;
- Fredo Corleone—marries Deanna; dies in Part II;
- Michael Corleone—central figure of The Godfather, Parts I-III; head of family after Vito's death; main lieutenants are Al, Rocco, and an unnamed bodyguard; marries Kay in first Godfather, they are separated in Part II;
- Connie Corleone—marries Carlo, whom Michael orders killed later, at the beginning of first Godfather; a later husband is named Merle.
Anthony and Mary—children of Kay and Michael; Anthony was the child playing with his grandfather Vito when Vito dies in first Godfather
Hyman Roth—business associate of Michael's who had also worked with Vito (but who was not in first Godfather); his main lieutenant is Johnny Ola; wife not named
Frank Pentangeli—subordinate of Michael's in control of family business in New York; was not in first Godfather, but was a subordinate of Clemenza's; wife not named
Pat Geary—Nevada senator who asks for bribes from Michael, then becomes beholden to him; wife not named
Don Ciccio—Mafia chieftain in Corleone, Sicily; kills Vito's father, brother and mother in 1901; Vito kills him several years later
Fanucci—Mafia underling in New York until killed by Vito in the early 1920's
Clemenza—a main character in first Godfather and one of Vito's oldest friends; in Part II they steal a rug together to begin Vito's life of crime
Tessio—Vito's other early associate; it is he who brings in the birthday cake at the end of Part II; he is killed by Michael's order at the end of first Godfather.