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Motion pictures can be edited in two basic ways. Continuous action presents events in the sequence they occur. Time may lapse between scenes, but the story unfolds chronologically, so that the beginning, middle, and end of the film are also the beginning, middle, and end of the story that the film tells. Parallel action cuts back and forth between scenes or narratives. Sometimes parallel action is used to depict events that occur simultaneously, other times to relate multiple narratives, cutting back and forth between them. The primary difference between the first two Godfather films is that The Godfather employs mostly continuous action, whereas Part II uses parallel action. From the opening at Connie’s wedding to the final scene in which Michael arrives at Las Vegas, the scenes of The Godfather are related in chronological order. The major storylines of the film—the transfer of power from Vito to Michael and Michael’s development from youngest son to Godfather—are tales of development, linear in structure. As a result, the characters’ actions speak largely for themselves. We see Michael develop from someone who is unable to say “I love you” to Kay into someone who can. We see Vito change from a powerful Godfather into a playful old grandfather.
On the few occasions when The Godfather does employ parallel structure, it does so for very specific reasons. The first time is toward the beginning of the movie: as Tom, Sonny, and Vito debate doing business with Sollozzo, we see brief flashes of scenes that show a meeting being arranged. In this case, the parallel structure captures Sollozzo’s double dealing, as well as Vito’s discomfort about the deal. It should not come as a surprise that Vito rejects Sollozzo’s offer at the meeting, nor that shortly afterward Sollozzo tries to have Vito killed. The movie also uses parallel action to relate the Mafia war that directly follows Michael’s murder of Sollozzo. Cutting back and forth between shots that depict gangsters going about their daily lives and images of newspaper headlines that chronicle the violent Mafia war they are waging, the editing highlights the disruptive effect of violence on the lives of mafiosi. The most famous use of parallel action is in the baptism scene at the movie’s end, which introduces us to Michael’s duplicity and the double life he will lead as head of the family.
While The Godfather consists of a single narrative whose chronological exposition is interrupted a few times to highlight important moments, Part II alternates between two separate stories. Rather than being used sparsely and strategically, as in The Godfather, parallel action defines the entire structure of Part II. The Godfather opens with a scene that culminates in an initially disrespectful suppliant kissing Don Vito’s hand in a humble show of respect. Part II begins with a parallel shot of Michael, now Godfather, having his hand kissed by a suppliant. But then the movie cuts to an image of the rocky Sicilian countryside. Subtitles state, “The Godfather was born Vito Andolini, in the town of Corleone in Sicily.” With this opening, Part II announces that it will not simply move forward like The Godfather, but back and forth. It also establishes that the film’s parallel structure will function crucially, as the display of respect shown to Michael is immediately undermined by the narrator who calls Vito, not Michael, Godfather. Not only will the movie compare the two men, but it will complicate the transfer of power enacted in The Godfather. This opening scene shift suggests that Michael has failed to escape his father’s mythical shadow.
These questions of succession highlight the problem that Part II faces as the sequel to the tremendously popular, critically acclaimed The Godfather. The challenge for Part II was establishing its own ground. One way that the film resolves this dilemma is by acting as not only a sequel, but also a prequel. By cutting back and forth between a continuation of the narrative of Michael’s life, the sequel to his story in The Godfather, and the story of Vito’s youth, the prequel to his story in The Godfather, it solves the problem of succession by complicating it. Part II is both the son of The Godfather and its father.
Part II performs a critique of The Godfather by questioning the morality of the Corleones’ actions and by introducing further psychological depth to the family story. In the earliest Sicilian scenes, Vito’s father, brother, and mother—his entire family—are all killed over the course of a few days by Don Ciccio, a local Mafia boss. Even though he is only nine years old, Vito is also considered a threat, and so to survive, he runs away to America. As his tale proceeds we see him transform himself from a grocery clerk into a local Mafia don, a classic story of American upward social mobility. Meanwhile, Michael is forced to deal with continual violence, attempts on his life, and treachery within his family. He survives, but only by being more ruthless than his enemies. His survival comes at a cost: Michael winds up losing his family. Kay aborts a child and renounces her love for him, and Michael feels compelled to kill his brother, Fredo, who was involved tangentially in an attempt to kill him. Whereas Vito begins Part II alone and then builds a family, Michael moves in the opposite direction, in the end losing much of what his father built. The structure of the film forces us to compare the two men and include moral considerations in the equation. Michael seems less a hero than a villain. Not only does he strong-arm politicians, neglect his family, and murder business associates left and right, he kills his own brother in a vicious display of cruelty and vengeance. The only way for Michael to escape from his father’s shadow is to cross over moral and ethical boundaries that his father never would violate.
But more important than Part II’s critique of the violence of the Mafia life is its introduction of further psychological depth into its analysis of character. As the movie proceeds, we come to understand that the film’s journey backward in time, to Vito’s youth, is also a journey inward. The past affects the present, the parallel structure suggests. It explains, for instance, how the Corleones became mixed up in the Mafia and violence in the first place. This equation of backward- and inward-looking isn’t complete until the end of Part II, where parallel editing is used to take us into Michael’s mind as he experiences a memory.
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