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Why 'The Godfather Part II' is Al Pacino's best performance

On the big screen, Al Pacino has shown himself to be a man fully capable of giving audiences a performance full of turmoil, romance and contradiction: a man of deep intensity and craft, meditating on the journey his characters endure on their quest to absolution and completion, complete with a fierily charged monologue that details his descent into hell. But that’s his signature move, tying his work from Dog Day Afternoon to The Irishman in one tidy oeuvre.

The Godfather Part II shows a very different Pacino, and the result is a tango-waltzing, chess-playing, cigarette-chomping triumph, every body movement is done in conjunction with the rhythms of the script itself. Pacino was born to play Michael Corleone, and while his first turn had an effortless presence, his second exhibition is even more rounded, showing an isolated figure doomed to follow the same steps his family has laid out for him.

Pacino brings lethal danger to the role; he brings a sense of longing from a man who was unmarried in real life; he brings a genuine fragility to the part, as he employs nerve and shrewd intellect in an industry that is otherwise bravura and brawn. Pacino is easily the most handsome actor in the film, but Pacino cleverly lets his good looks guide his menace and bravado, using it as his mask to open up the vaults that are shut out to the multitude passing on the American streets. With his unsmiling demeanour and dark hair, creased in a way that is acceptable in the eyes of the haven of WASPs that pay his wages, Corleone is the definition of an outcast enjoying the splendour of his country’s industries.

The key to this performance is that Pacino is both hero and villain, playing the role of foe and friend to the woman who bore him two (nearly three) children, invoking his sense of hell on her. This is the story of a husband who is determined to do right by his wife, but every movement pushes her further away from his hands, until he finds himself alone by a lake, with only the stories his father told him for company. After a very nasty and frenzied argument between Corleone and his wife, the man holds onto his children with the intention of carrying onto his legacy and history, showing his son the way of the world.

It’s a towering performance, albeit one tinged with desperation, as he clutches onto the world his father built up from the ground. Countering his turmoil comes the constant rumination of his father, who appears before his eyes in peak health and condition (played rather marvellously by Robert De Niro), realising that he is everything he is tempestuous and tempered, much as his father was pragmatic and poised for success.

Although known for his exhibitionism, Al Pacino distils everything down to its essence for this role, showing the passion, pain and panache the script expects of him. Pacino’s interest in character development is prevalent from the beginning, as he wears the face his American superiors think befits his standing in life. And although Francis Ford Coppola’s script is rich with one-liners and zingers (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” has become part of the cultural American mythos), the film’s most impactful moments are the silent ones.

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Watch as Corleone sinks into fury, as he witnesses his brother Fredo (John Cazale) admit to the very sin he never thought he was capable of, or witness the emotion radiating from Pacino as he watches his wife knit the jumper for the child they have just lost. Then there’s the rage that boils into his face as he realises that his wife aborted the son he was building an empire for, momentarily falling victim to the type of thuggish behaviour he has spent a life distancing himself from.

It pivots on Shakespearian, because the script allows him to be theatrical and overblown, but instead Pacino scales it all back for the power of that last shot – a piercing portrait of a man temporarily aged by the bodies piling up in the graveyard of his mind. Pacino would reprise the role for one final time in 1990 for the low-key The Godfather Part III, bringing cinema’s most notorious vagrant down to his knees in a stunning re-telling of the legend. It was a striking and singular adaptation of the Mario Puzo text and showed Corleone at the next stage of his life.

But the power of the close of The Godfather Part II meant that the third feature, although noteworthy, was also largely inessential. Because in that closing shot, Pacino exudes the disappointment and despair that will haunt the gangster overlord for the rest of his life. And for an actor who is so determined to focus on the journey, this is one destination that made it all worth the wait.

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