Once upon a time in Mafia mythology

THE GODFATHER PART II Francis Ford Coppola (18) DENISE CALLS UP Hal Salwen (12) RAINBOW Bob Hoskins (PG); also showing
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Anyone who was introduced to the first two Godfather films through the version that Francis Ford Coppola assembled for television in 1977 will be struck by the strange contours and rhythms evident in The Godfather Part II, which is released this week in a sizzling new print. What Coppola effectively did for television was organise the two films chronologically, and iron out the creases. (Imagine Resnais doing the same thing to Last Year at Marienbad and you'll have an idea of how the films' majesty was diminished.) Coppola added an hour of extra footage. But something was still missing. The creases.

The twin strands of The Godfather Part II bookend the original film: Coppola ferries us between Sicily in the early part of this century, where young Vito Corleone hotfoots it to New York after being orphaned by a Mafia fatcat, and 1950s America where Vito's son Michael (Al Pacino) presides over the Corleone family's awful business. This structure gives the Corleone legacy a tangible depth and, more valuably, accentuates the sense of history on which Mafia pride is built, something that The Godfather could only hint at.

It's a more sophisticated achievement than its predecessor. That film was studded with flamboyantly violent set-pieces; Part II is woven from sideways glances, ambiguous gestures, a tightening of the lips - all magnified by Gordon Willis's reverent but searching camera, which captures the nods on which lives hang. Even the long sequence where Vito prowls the rooftops hunting a mobster concentrates more on the method than the murder - you remember the flickering bulb that makes Vito look like an apparition as he loiters in the shadows awaiting his prey, or after the shooting, when he feeds gun parts into chimneys as he makes his getaway.

These flashbacks depict Vito as a man of enormous guile, whose redoubtable empire grows from steadfastly moral beginnings: he usurps a local heavy, and appropriates the fellow's duties with a benign generosity that has left Coppola open to accusations of glorifying the Mafia.

This is fair, up to a point. Robert De Niro plays Vito with a mixture of caution and confidence that is seductively feline - he's a dashing romantic, with the poise of Valentino. But Vito's life is only the start of an expansive tragedy charting a steep spiritual decline. You couldn't mistake it for a training film for budding hoods, like Goodfellas (and The Godfather) or any of the other movies that made mob rule look cool. There are moments when Coppola appears to be attributing the Corleones' troubles to women and nincompoops - Michael's wife Kay (Diane Keaton), and his weasly brother Fredo (John Cazale), who you know is rotten from his pencil moustache. But if you're still convinced that might is right by the time you reach the final shot of Michael's dead, dark eyes, then chances are there's a Kray in your family.

The movie's despair can be crushing, but though it is without light, its themes and emotions illuminate. And it has performances that crackle - from Lee Strasberg, acidic through his frailty as the Jewish gangster Hyman Roth; Talia Shire as Michael's fearless sister Connie; Diane Keaton, underused but blistering; and Pacino and De Niro, creating a poignant dialogue between characters separated by 50 years (which could not be matched when they shared their first on-screen moment in this year's Heat). It is, for this writer, the most disturbing and profound film in American cinema, complicated by the fact that it is also quite possibly the bleakest.

The snappy comedy Denise Calls Up goes a short way with a small idea - that a group of friends who talk all day on the telephone might be so self-obsessed that they never get around to meeting. The writer / director Hal Salwen moves his feature along so quickly that it's a while before you notice that he's just serving up different variations on one gag. The film is visually daring - it's only a few tracking shots away from looking like a photo-story - and Salwen takes an abrupt turn into black comedy halfway through. But like his characters, he never really gets it together.

Bob Hoskins's BT ads have done more to persuade the nation to avoid the telephone than the tragic, ditsy characters in Denise Calls Up ever could. Inconceivably, he has involved himself with something even more irritating. Rainbow, his second stab at directing, is the story of three children who venture into a rainbow but upset the world's colour balance (and, therefore, oxygen supply) by stealing gold from it. As entertainment or education, it's unforgivably inept, and should be used only in the event of Muppet Treasure Island being sold out. And there being nothing on TV. And no more relatives left to visit.

n All films on general release from Friday