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6th April 2022

The Godfather Part II: Intergenerational conflict at the heart of mafia epic

This mafia masterpiece has more to say than just action, corruption and murder – at its core are pertinent questions about immigrant status and a changing set of values in the face of the ‘American Dream’.
The Godfather Part II: Intergenerational conflict at the heart of mafia epic
Photo: Gordon Willis @ Film at Lincon Centre

The Godfather Part II is often considered one of the greatest films ever made, mastering the medium in its portrayal of corruption, revenge, and moral conflicts. Yet far more interesting to me, and something people often overlook, is the film’s take on identity and changing immigrant values. As the son of an Italian immigrant himself, director Francis Ford Coppola imbues his mafia sequel with a nuanced and personal take on the intergenerational clashes that arise within such families. 

The film begins as a young Vito, the future Godfather, emigrates from Italy to America after a set of tragic events in his childhood. From here, audiences follow the arc of how Vito (Robert de Niro) rose to power to eventually become the famous Godfather from the original film. Young Vito’s story arc is interweaved with the drama of the present day, each getting half of the film’s screen time. The present parallel arc follows Michael, (Al Pacino) Vito’s son, now the new Godfather managing the family business after Vito’s death. We watch Michael become increasingly corrupt and drift apart from the values Vito stood for throughout his rule.

The brilliance of this Godfather outing is the cleverly contrasted story arcs which reflect the stark contrast between father and son. Michael becomes cold and immoral whilst Vito seems to flourish as a warm and charismatic leader. These divergent characterisations convey a core preoccupation of the film and filmmaker – the idea that it is morally commendable for an immigrant to uphold the values of their home country.

An identity-disturbing dilemma is thus at the heart of this immigrant’s tale. To what degree should one conform to the values of a new culture or uphold their home country’s traditions? This decision is one that occurs for many families and often elicits clashes between older and younger generations. Vito’s values as an immigrant clash with Michael’s Americanized values and aspirations. At the beginning of the first film, Michael’s American values are presented in a neutral tone. At that point, he refuses to associate with his illegal family business and instead decides to fight for America in the army. His compliance with American values, however, acquires a pejorative undertone by the end of the first film. In this sequel, Michael puts the pursuit of prosperity and the American dream before his family and the values held by Vito. Michael’s favouring of power over family is repeatedly shown to be an immoral choice. 

This argument is not an attempt to minimise Michael’s violent and corrupt character. Clearly Michael’s desire for power drives his ambition. His craving for triumph and constant paranoia leads to shocking bloodshed and violence in the film – he can hardly be considered a standard protagonist given the depths he goes to. However, by analysing the relationship between story threads, we can shed some light on the prevalence of the film’s immigration biases in shaping our perception of character. For first-generation immigrants like Coppola these debates would have been particularly prescient and highlight a potential struggle immigrants face in retaining the values of their home cultures or assimilating into their chosen countries. 

Despite its biases, The Godfather Part II is still capable of capturing the nuances of this immigration dilemma and provides a fascinating lens through which to view these fabled crime bosses. The second film is a tale of the generational differences in the assimilation of immigrants and their children, scaled to the proportions of organised crime mafia.

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