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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Godfather Part II: "Fruit of Thy Womb"




The issue of Brando’s – or Vito’s – absence is dealt with in the opening frames of The Godfather Part II, as we see Michael’s ring kissed by a soldier, the camera focusing on the empty chair in the background, which we know belonged to the departed father. Though in control, Michael has still not fully assumed his father’s throne. The image of the chair fades to black and Coppola fades in on the Sicilian countryside, deep in the past, the insects chirping as a funeral processing emerges from the side of the frame. Some expositional information – taken from Puzo’s novel – is written out for us. The legendary “godfather” character that we met in The Godfather is not “Vito Corleone,” but was born in 1892 as “Vito Andolini” in the town of Corleone, Sicily. In 1901, his father Antonio Andolini was murdered for an insult to the local mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio, and so too was his vengeful older brother, Paolo (we get a sense of the unruly passion that Santino would have likely inherited).

Vito, pale, thin, and sickly looking, walks in the procession with his grieving mother. It's remarkable to assume that this boy will one day become the awesome presence with which we’ve grown so fascinated as a viewing audience. Still, the boy’s silences and penetrating glances indicate a kind of icy intelligence possessed by the lordly Don Corleone. The procession is broken up by the sounds of gunfire, sending everyone into a skirmish as they look for cover. A woman in the distance yells, “They killed your son! They killed Paolo!” Coppola cuts to a fallen corpse on the rocks, the head of thick hair tainted with blood. The widow, her younger son behind her, weeps over the body. “My son, my son,” she cries, cradling the corpse.

The Godfather Part II’s first moments address the relationship of parent to child, and siblings to each other (it also portends the finale of the trilogy, as Vito's remaining son, Michael, cries over his slain daughter). Vito is a devoted son holding fast to his grieving mother, and he continues to look on as she holds his older brother’s corpse: this older brother who was his father’s son, his mother’s son, fruit of the tree where he came from. The sanctity of these blood ties is the key theme of the next 200 minutes. The image of Vito sympathetically absorbing his crying mother over her other son’s corpse instills within him a sense of the importance – and fragility – of the “Family” construct, and how it must be protected. The story of Michael Corleone follows the youngest son’s tortured relationship with his older brothers: the biological “passed-over” misfit brother Fredo and adopted brother Tom Hagen. In addition to this is the texture of a subplot involving Frank Pentangeli’s relationship with his estranged brother, who lives in Sicily and arrives to haunt the Americanized Frankie, who has cut a deal with the government and plans on violating his mafia oath.

The prologue also develops a motif of logical necessity. Coupled with the sentiments of family in wake of the Andolini murders are the practical methods of Don Ciccio, responsible for murdering Antonio and Paulo Andolini. The widow Andolini goes to Ciccio’s villa, pleading for the life of young Vito, whom the don believes he must also kill. She points out that Vito is “slow and dumb-witted and wouldn’t hurt anyone.” But reason dictates that when he becomes a man, he will seek some form of revenge. That’s the way of the world, and an intelligent man like Ciccio understands that it’s safer to tie up all loose ends rather than leave anything to chance. Ciccio’s desire to kill nine-year-old Vito is not born out of any ill-will towards the boy or his mother, or even the original Antonio Andolini “insult”: it again returns us to the quandary of “personal” and “business.” Ciccio wants to pre-emptively solve a problem before it has time to bud and become a personal vendetta.

The plea for mercy to a mafia chieftain will be repeated in the film, at least twice to the adult Vito, and then quite significantly to Michael near the end, and we should note how both Corleone godfathers respond to the crying women who plead to them. The practicality of Ciccio, conveying the attributes of a successful CEO, is the philosophy at odds with the sentiment that Family is Sacred – and thus nine-year-old Vito must die. Compare this to how Don Vito handles the request of the widow Signora Colombo, and then how Michael handles the request of his sister Connie, who begs him to forgive Fredo. The sad irony is that Michael becomes the double of Don Ciccio, the man who would murder his father.

Desperate, the mother holds a knife to Ciccio’s throat, instructs Vito to “run,” and is killed by the don’s bodyguards. She gives her life for her son, her body hurled forth by gun-blast just as Vito is blown across the ocean. His primary instinct was not to flee, but to come forward to her aid. He relies on the kindness of loyal family friends to help him find a way out of Corleone. The image dissolves from the town center to Ellis Island. Vito Andolini Corleone, we see, is a variation of the orphan archetype, saved in a basket and in the mold of characters ranging from Moses to Luke Skywalker.

The juxtaposition between one’s country and blood is fascinating in Godfather II, and before engaging in a discussion about the relationship between the father and son, I think it’s even more significant to wonder about how Coppola has injected his material with so many allusions to Motherhood, and how a relationship to the Mother reflects how individuals are changing with their culture. Vito’s severence from his mother makes him a boy without a family or country, renamed by impersonal customs officials, his identity diminished to numbers as he’s quarantined for smallpox, the number 7 on his chest, the number 52 on his government bed. In The Godfather Part II, the haunting presence of the father is the past’s lingering ghost, but the Mother represents the ties to the Old World. She is the naval root. It’s only when Mama Corleone dies that Michael goes through with fratricide, his brother Fredo killed while reciting a Hail Mary, the Catholic prayer that pays tribute to the “fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” It was the mother’s death that started the journey of the Corleones, and so it is the mother’s death that signals absolute decline.
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The opening of Vito’s grieving mother, holding the corpse of one son and begging for the life of another, defines what Coppola is trying to say about the expansion from the Old to the New World, as Vito Andolini/Corleone goes westward, away from the naval though preserving the memory of what he lost, knowing that his mother gave her life for him. The immigrant opening of 1901 dissolves into Lake Tahoe, 1958, as Vito’s grandson, Anthony, is receiving his first communion. The accent on motherhood is most important though, when we compare the solitary devotion and struggle of the Andolini widow to the Americanized treatment of the “mother” in Vito’s widow, Carmella Corleone, and their daughter Connie. The sense extends beyond the women and to how an ethnic culture adapts to prosperity.

The first lines uttered in this section of the film (other than Father Carmello’s First Communion prayers) are Connie’s calling of “Mama! Mama!” as she swerves through the glitzy lakeside party to her mother’s seat, holding the hand of her WASP fiancé, Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue). The niceties of child to mother interaction are performative, as the superficial (though frankly damaged) Connie, garish and loud, proclaims that she has a “gift for my mama,” handing her an expensive piece of jewelry. Meanwhile, Merle kisses Mama on the cheek. She is annoyed.

Like Al Pacino, Morgana King’s casting as Mama Corleone proved invaluable, as her face also reads like a map of the Old Country. During the wedding of Part I, Mama was a lively force, singing Sicilian songs on the stage and dancing. Her presence and demeanor could have fooled a naïve onlooker as to what country the wedding was in fact taking place in. But during this Lake Tahoe gathering, she looks lethargic and lost. Her role is reduced to customary kisses and presents. The Old Country is dying out, and so is her function as the Mother.

Her contemporary during the party is Frank Pentangeli, an old-country caporegime who currently presides over the former Corleone compound in New York. He complains about servers at the party who offer canapés, but which Frankie recognizes as “chopped liver and a Ritz cracker.” He then tries to get the mainstream white American band to play a tarantella. Mama Corleone stands behind Pentangeli while he irately says to them, “Out of thirty professional musicians, there isn’t one Italian!” He tries to get an Italian melody started, but only can muster “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The moment is funny, but in the context of a film about Time, it’s also sad. The world of Frank Pentangeli and Mama Corleone, so idiosyncratic during the wedding of Part I with the right wine (as opposed to “champagne cocktails”), sandwiches, and music, has moved on.

The flip side of motherhood is shown in neglectful Connie. One week late in arriving to see her family, she is scolded by her mother for her need to talk to Michael instead of attending to maternal duties. “You go see your children first, and then you worry about waiting on line to see your brother.” When she gets in to see Michael, she tells him that she and Merle are getting married. “The ink on your divorce isn’t dry yet and you’re getting married?” Michael begins. “You see your children on weekends. Your oldest boy Victor was picked up in Reno for some petty theft you don’t even know about! You fly around the world with men who don’t care for you and use you like a whore!” “You’re not my father!” she screams in retaliation. But why does he come to her? Because she needs money. Michael is the head of the family, but the “godfather” role that once generated awe is now purely an economical machine, not a potent symbolic figure. Both traditional masculine and feminine functions are in decline.

The third woman in Tahoe worth taking a look at is the wife of Fredo, Deanna (Marianna Hill), a trophy showgirl spouse who is unable to fulfill any traditional familial role, and contributes to the sense of entropy. At the dinner table, her hand crosses over to meet Merle Johnson’s, causing Mama Corleone to frown and say something in Italian (in turn making the adopted Tom Hagen, a non-Sicilian who is acting more Sicilian than many other Corleones, to chuckle with her). As Deanna drunkenly dances, Fredo struggles to control her. She insults him while referring to her dance partner, “You’re just jealous because he’s a real man!” “Deanna, I swear I’m gonna belt you in the teeth!” Fredo fumes. “You couldn’t belt your mama!” she storms off, continuing to cause havoc: “Never marry a wop! They treat their wives like shit! I didn’t mean to say ‘wop’!”

Well, of course Fredo wouldn’t belt his mama. But what this moment suggests is that the fortunate people living “the good life” in America, which the Corleones are struggling to enter, have no sense of anything sacramental in family relationships, particularly as regards to the mother. The Old World Adoration of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother, has fallen by the wayside for lip-service and materialism. The Godfather Part II, with these troubling and conservative sexual politics, is also a film about revolutions: personal, political, and sexual. The last woman we must consider here in the Tahoe chapter is Kay Adams Corleone, Michael’s wife, pregnant for the third time. In Kay, the Mother is not an individual with functional agency but a prisoner to her feminine role. Hoping that their new child is a boy, perhaps to replicate his father’s line of sons, Kay is a vessel for the Corleone legacy more than an individual. As “times are changing,” a refrain of the trilogy, the separation of information that we see between Vito and Carmella is unacceptable between Michael and Kay. He does not tell her where he goes after the attempt on his life, and expects her to stay within the Lake Tahoe compound. Gifts to his family are handled by Hagen. Michael has removed himself from the paternal role, so how is Kay supposed to go about her maternal one? “I’m a prisoner in my own house, is that it?” she says to Hagen. “That’s not the way we look at it, Kay,” as if the Corleones were a corporation and not a family. She’s right. The opening scenes of The Godfather Part II show how protective, assured, and important a woman can be, and Michael takes that for granted as he invests his dreams in nothing but male heirs.
The immigrant struggle is theatrically performed in 1917 for Vito and his friend Genco Abbandando while they watch a musical play, Senza Mama (written by Coppola’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino). The stage even doubles for the Ellis Island of the prelude as a violinist stands and begins playing, recalling the violinist during one of the Ellis Island tracking shots. (History is, after all, opera for Coppola). Senza Mama is about a man who left his Mama in Naples, going to America for a “no good tramp.” He’s sad, feeling alone in America, thinking of his mother from whom he’s received no news. New York is not a land of opportunity for these immigrants. It’s a sad reminder of the world they left behind, which only reaches out to them with news of death. The death of the mother in Senza Mama, as the westward journeyer follows a “no good tramp,” is a metaphor for the America of The Godfather Part II. Michael has led the Corleone family down a hole of prosperity that’s severed itself from the womb, the sacred sense of maternity – so important to Italian culture – blasphemed.

An important episode in the Vito flashbacks involves an evicted widow, Signora Colombo. Her son’s beloved dog has resulted in her landlord evicting her, and she begs Don Vito to convince him to let her stay. Vito offers money to help her move somewhere else, but she weeps, continuing to plead: since the death of her husband, her home is her link to the past, her sense of value and identity. He thinks about it and agrees to have a chat with the landlord, Signor Roberto.

We could take this as an amusing throwaway episode simply meant to establish Vito’s power. But the pleas of Signora Colombo are very important when we consider the character of Don Vito and how we compare him to his son. Yes, the “rational” thing would be for the young mafia don to simply offer her money to move. But the weeping widow in black is a reflection of what he witnessed in the last moments of his mother. Signora Colombo brings Vito back to lost mother love, and he is helpless. Behind him, as he listens to her, there is a picture of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, the background detail informing us about the mother/son sanctity running through Vito Corleone’s mind. Sentiment and symbolism is valued over reason.

Signor Roberto is oblivious to who “Don Vito” is, and thus cannot be swayed by Vito’s request to let the widow stay. Vito gives him a large advance in rent payment for persuasion, but the landlord is still deterred by Vito’s insistence that “the dog stays.” Roberto’s interest in money trumps his commitment to the community and relationships: the fact that he and Vito are paisan doesn’t matter to him; what matters is that the new tenants pay more rent and he can rent out more apartments with the dog gone. This leads to the trilogy’s most playfully funny scene, as Roberto returns to Vito’s office (where Genco is now the loyal consigliere and the Corleone business is named after the grocery business of Genco’s father, with a special interest in olive oil imports from Sicily). Roberto has made inquiries about Vito Corleone, and he is now foppishly apologetic, nervously kissing ass. “Of course Signora Colombo can stay! Money isn’t everything! The rent stays like before!” Vito gently smiles and looks to Genco. Roberto revises himself. “I’ll even lower it! $5!” Vito again looks at Genco. “$10!” This pleases Vito and Roberto politely leaves, excessively thanking Vito. Again, we note the icon of the Virgin Mary behind Vito during this scene, and how Roberto begins his visit by invoking “Holy Mary!”

The death of the maternal bond plays out in the final act. Michael will not kill Fredo as long as Mama Corleone is alive. Once she’s gone, he will settle all accounts, including ordering the death of his brother. The Old Value and symbolism of family is wiped out by Michael’s efficiency, so much like Don Ciccio, the reasonable man who killed Michael’s grandparents, tying up all loose ends. The final utterances out of Fredo’s mouth, as he fishes with his unknown assassin, Al Neri, behind him, are the words of the “Hail Mary,” the prayer to the Holy Mother and the secret to catching the big fish, but now meaningless in the vacant world of Michael Corleone’s prosperity.

Mother-Love has in turn rejected Michael and his dreams. Before Mama Corleone’s death, and just after sealing his victory by evading incarceration for perjury, Kay discloses a dark truth to him. Michael believed that Kay had a miscarriage, and that she blamed it on his lack of presence as a husband. “I can change,” he says. “I’ve learned I have the strength to change, and I’m going to change.” “Oh Michael, you are blind,” she says, laying out her confession. “It was an abortion. Something unholy and evil, just like our marriage is an abortion!” The things “going on between men and women for thousands of years” are subverted by Kay’s private revolution as an active woman, standing up to the tyranny of her husband just as the Widow Andolini stood up to Don Ciccio (however contradictory the outcome is for the offspring).

Kay understands that the familial symbolism is dead in Michael Corleone’s family, and instead of bringing any more of Michael’s sons into the world – who would continue this unnatural “Sicilian thing” – she willfully cuts the cord herself (significantly, after this scene Coppola moves to the last of the flashbacks, as Vito goes back to Sicily to carry out his revenge on the elderly Ciccio; unlike all of the other cuts to the past, it is a straight cut instead of a slow dissolve, denoting the absolute separation between present to past, or children to parents. Time too is aborted). Kay becomes the anti-Virgin Mary, but her transgression is a symbolic action of truth.

The negative imagery is grotesquely felt elsewhere, as with a dead prostitute at a Corleone brothel, murdered by Al Neri to frame Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin). Without a family, Tom Hagen tells the Senator, it's as though the hooker never existed. But though family denotes "reality" ("A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man," Don Corleone says in Part I), the impersonal murder of an innocent employee is symptomatic of the Corleone family's decadence. The dead hooker is another metaphor, the blood on the sheets seeming to point to her birth canal (making it more disgusting to gaze upon). The Mother is dead and absent, a relic with the potency of the icons decorating the mass. The fruit is cut off from the root, like the ominous oranges that haunt Coppola’s story.

The circle of motherhood closes when once more, like at the conclusion of The Godfather, the door is closed on Kay Adams Corleone. As Kay, her separation from Michael imminent, bids Anthony to come and kiss her once more before she leaves, the looming darkness of the self-absorbed father Michael (unlike the other Corleones, he has no mistress), approaches. Anthony moves aside as Michael approaches the door. Michael looks upon the mother of his children and closes the door on her, her weeping drifting away and closed off, a rejected inflection of what we've heard elsewhere through Vito's mother and Signora Colombo. Michael turns, as if to his own children with this satanic demonstration of family, framing the negative image of Mother Love that we saw at the beginning of the film, as mother and son were hand in hand bound together through life and death. The adopted mother here, presented as a souvenir gift to Michael's maternal grandmother back in 1920s Sicily, is the statue of liberty, an alternative icon of warm maternity, that likewise has been perverted by how her sons have invested their inheritance. The family is aloft and detached, like Fredo's corpse in the distant boat.


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