Both a prequel and a sequel, Godfather II adds surprising depth to the story told in the 1972 movie, even though that film seemed just about perfect and self-contained. As it turns out, there was still more insight into the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who in Part II is busy protecting his empire from threats internal and external, to be gleaned from the movie’s parallel story of his father Vito’s (Robert De Niro) rise to power decades earlier. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s fabled cross-cutting makes the contrast apparent. For Vito, consolidation of power is a way of engaging with the world, of finding a place in it for himself and his family, while for Michael, consolidation of power results in his withdrawal from the world and his isolation from even his closest family members.
The quiet, meticulous De Niro gives a solid sense of the man who will become Marlon Brando’s soft-spoken crime lord/doting dad in the first Godfather. So solid, in fact, that Brando’s presence is felt in the scene near the end of the movie where Michael flashes back to the old man’s birthday party, held on the day Michael enlisted in response to Pearl Harbor, a celebration that marked one of the last times the Corleone family was intact. As the movie’s brilliant structure implies, every celebratory hello contains the seeds of a sorrowful farewell.