Other posts in this series:
The Godfather: 1. Coppola's Decline of a Family; 2. "I Believe in America"; 3. Enough Time / The Godfather Part II: 4. The Horizon of Time; 5. "Fruit of Thy Womb"; 6. Revolutions; 7. Between Brothers / 8. Intermezzo: "Time, Who Eats His Own Young" / The Godfather Part III: 9. "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"; 10. "The Body Cries Out" / 11. Coda: My Debt to The Godfather
“Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones. / Had I your tongues and eyes, I would use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever. / I know when one is dead and when one lives. / She’s dead as earth.” – Lear, V.24.253-257
The key individual scene in Godfather III is Michael’s conversation with Cardinal Lamberto. It is Godfather III’s chief dramatic moment, as the “Wasn’t enough time” transfer of power between Vito and Michael was in Part I, and the “passed over” quarrel between Fredo and Michael was in Part II. Greyly lit among stone pillars and fountains surrounded by pigeons, Michael fully discloses his Vatican problem to Lamberto. The priest admits that what Michael is telling him can only result in a great scandal. He reaches into the fountain and pulls out a stone.
“Look at this stone,” he says. "It has been lying in the water for a very long time. But the water has not penetrated it.” He breaks the stone open on the fountain, showing it to Michael. “Look. Perfectly dry.” Michael reaches into his pockets, then indecisively keeps them out, unsteady. Lamberto continues. “The same thing has happened with men in Europe. For centuries, they have been surrounded by Christianity. But Christ has not penetrated it. Christ does not live within them.”
Lamberto is of course describing Michael Corleone, representative of Western Man’s despair. As Lamberto notes Christendom’s decadence, Michael collapses on a bench, struggling to loosen his tie. He is suffering a hypoglycemic reaction and whispers that he urgently needs some candy or orange juice. Coppola begins this conversation in a full two-shot, then ever-so-slowly moves in on Michael as he falls, not cutting away while he struggles to keep his breath, looking like a child in adult clothing. The candy and juice is quickly brought to him, and the image continues to slowly move in as Michael thirstily, with uncharacteristic desperation, guzzles down the orange juice and shakily grabs the small candies, tearing open the wrappers and eating ravenously, some pulp carelessly stuck on his lip. He reaches to the Cardinal’s arm. “When I’m under stress sometimes this happens.” In the same way that John Cazale’s depiction of mental shame is achingly real, so is Pacino’s depiction of diabetic affliction. The reason it is so stirring is because, Lamberto points out, afflictions of the body and the soul are connected. “The mind suffers…and the body cries out.”
Coppola cuts to a close up of Michael, agreeing, then back to the sympathizing Lamberto. “Would you like to make your confession?” he asks the murderer in front of him. “Your Eminince…I’m…I’m…it’s been so long…I wouldn’t know where to…it’s been thirty years…I’d take up too much of your time.” Lamberto keeps smiling. “I always have time to save souls.” By contrast, taking time to confess sins was something that Gilday joked about earlier in the film, when Harrison visited after Michael’s stroke. “Well, I’m beyond redemption,” Michael says. Lamberto dismisses the excuse.
Cutting to another space in the square, with an abundance of vines and pink flowers in the foreground, Lamberto enters the frame. “I hear the confessions of my own priests here. Sometimes the desire to confess is overwhelming. And we must seize the moment.” Cut to Michael, the camera behind the leaves in the darkness, showing how he’s still walled away from anyone, the plants obscuring him. He voices his logic: “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?” He still can’t bring himself to repent because, though he lost everything, he did what he did to protect his family.
Lamberto humors Michael. “I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose?” Lamberto knows that an appeal to Michael’s rational stance is the only way to break him open. Cut to Michael in close-up, the left side of the frame covered with dark plants, the plants in front of Michael in full color, texturing the angle on his face (and possibly suggesting Lear and the mad king's crown of flowers). He forces a smile, looking at the ground. “Go on,” Lamberto says.
Cut to a full shot of both on the outer edge of the pilars, the sculpted nature giving a fragile tension. “I betrayed my wife.” “Go on, my son.” A distant church bell. “I betrayed myself.” A pause. “I killed men.” The church bell. Frontal shadowy close-up on Lamberto’s face from within the pillars. He nods. Michael continues, “And I ordered men to be killed.” “Go on, my son, go on.” A long pause. “It’s useless.” Back to the profile close-up on Michael. His eyes begin to flutter and his mouth is vulnerably open. “I killed –” he stops a moment. “I ordered the death of my brother.” Looking down, his face breaking up. “He injured me.” He looks up for air, beginning to weep as the twenty-year-old burden is at long last laid out: “I killed my mother’s son.” Cut to a two shot from within the pillars, the two men separated by a thick block of foliage. “I killed my father’s son.” Michael has lost his bearings and is now crying. Lamberto slowly turns to him, not surprised by this admission. Cut back to the alternate two-shot on both men outside the pillars.
“Your sins are terrible. And it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed. But I know you do not believe that,” he’s pinpointing that Michael’s flaw is his faith in reason at the expense of spiritual transformation – Catholic or otherwise. He issues the damning statement, “You will not change.” Cut back to the close-up of Lamberto from within the pillars. He blesses Michael, absolving him, though knowing this it's futile. Michael is, again, like the stone in the fountain. Michael’s redemption may surround him, but he, as a logical man of business, will remain dry. Cut back to Michael’s head in close-up, the plants covering up his shame as he has buried his face.
This magnificent moment in Godfather III, so well played by Pacino and Vallone, and lushly shot by Gordon Willis, could be, in the structure of The Godfather films as a complete novel, the focal scene (and for me, elevates the whole film to something beyond its maligned reputation). The parable of Lamberto goes beyond the lament of a Catholic priest. Closed off as Michael is, it is only appropriate that he is in pain, but to fully absolve himself – like Rascolnikov in Crime and Punishment – would mean to do something that he, as a practical individual, could never do. Like the corrupt officials in the Vatican, he too will “play for time,” the habit born of the contemplation of eternity. Stressing this despairing point, Coppola cuts from Michael’s face within the foliage-painted pillars to St. Peter’s in Rome, where the Vatican is also obscured by pillars from within: the gonging bells signaling the Pope’s death. The long contemplation of sin and redemption with the always-there abyss of eternity present can end too soon: as Vito discovered (and it’s a recurring idea in many other Coppola films), “there wasn’t enough time.” The same applies to Coppola’s conception of America. Throughout the 1970s, America may have been seriously mulling over its sins, which were terrible. But this was dismissed as “malaise” by an incoming philosophy that preached prosperity. “You will not change” applies to Michael Corleone and to America (and to Hollywood), whether in 1980, 1990, or 2012. Seeking forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
Michael sits with Connie, herself a criminal enabler. He admits, “All my life I wanted to go up in society. Where everything higher was legal, straight. But the higher I go, the more crooked it becomes. Where the hell does it end?” Michael diagnoses the illness of Sicilian’s ancient culture, of murder for pride and family, while handling his insulin shot. As he injects it, he tells her that he confessed his sins, something for which she chides him. She reminds him, perhaps full well knowing the truth of what happened in 1959, that “poor Fredo” drowned. “It was a terrible accident. But it’s finished,” she says. What Michael needs to do is not remain stirred within Connie’s consolations, which obscure him from redemption all the more, but be transparent. His illness must be confronted, not nursed with more duplicity.
This evasion from spiritual transparency and redemption is reminiscent of the possible spiritual transformation of the head of the Buddenbrook household in Thomas Mann’s novel: jolted to life, one will inevitably be lullabyed back to a decadent sleep by the warm assurances of the day-to-day, making meaning an opaque dream. Mann writes of Thomas Buddenbrook, “The imaginative elan and cheerful idealism of youth were gone. To play at work, to work at play, to strive, to direct one’s half-serious, half-whimsical ambition towards goals to which one ascribes only symbolic value – that requires a great deal of vigor, humor, and a breezy kind of courage for debonair, skeptical compromises and ingenious half-measures; but Thomas Buddenbrook felt indescribably weary and listless.”
What follows is Altobello’s meeting with a skilled assassin named Mosca, who is accompanied by his son who entertains Altobello with an irritating donkey impression (a wonderful Coppola detail). Mosca is given the job to kill Michael, and the disguise by which the assassin will adopt to get his prey is, as if to drive the film’s metaphors of corruption and theater to a light that is quite funny (remember that Vincent Mancini was dressed as a police officer when he shot Joey Zasa), a priest. Mosca ambushes Don Tommasino, taking advantage of the old man’s generous offer to give the pair of priests a ride. Recognizing Mosca, Tommasino is killed with a shotgun blast before his driver can get away.
It’s a “death-by-association” for Michael, who is once more experiencing another brick of fate walling him with the demonic strands of his past. Those strands continue to conflict directly with his drive to forgiveness. Just after making his peace with Kay, where he is trying to elucidate the reasons for his actions during their marriage and admitting his failure, Calo informs him of Tommasino's murder. “Blood calls for blood,” Calo passionately insists, asking for Michael’s blessing for vengeance – which he calmly gives. “It never ends,” Kay says to herself. This time, the doorway opened, she voluntarily exits the frame.
Cardinal Lamberto has meanwhile been elected as the new pope, John Paul I, a fortuitous event for Michael, as Lamberto, who does not “play for time,” is determined to be active in handling matters “right away” instead of “a little while.” The conspiratorial Immobilaire circle is immediately caught off guard by this Pope who “has very different ideas from the last one.” Keinzig, “God’s Banker”, has gone into hiding, taking a large amount of money and documents with him, bungling Gilday and Lucchesi’s plans. Their swindling of Michael Corleone is in terminal jeopardy.
The triumph of business is a triumph of ideas: Pope John Paul I, like Michael, is idealistically committed to ushering in a way of handling things that upsets the dusty and corrupt paradigm. The expense of Tommasino’s murder, it seems, may now lead to Michael’s similar triumph of spirit: he is kneeling over the coffin, broken as he was during his confession. It’s an audacious scene for Coppola, who dares to insert a soliloquy in a modern mafia film. Again, he is stressing his relationship to a grand tradition of theatre. Sometimes theatre is for show and duplicity, like with Zasa, Altobello, Vincent’s covert infiltration of Lucchesi, and Michael’s new role as a businessman; sometimes it is reflection, as with the puppet show, The Baroness of Carini, mirroring the taboo of Mary’s relationship to Vincent, ending with a father stabbing his daughter; and sometimes it is a sincere outpouring of the heart. Michael voices his spiritual questions and prays openly to God with an oath: “I swear on the lives on my children, give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.”
That’s a colossal pledge to make. Does he sin again? Immediately after making his vow he learns about the web that Lucchesi has weaved throughout all sectors of State and Church, extending from small-time hoods like Joey Zasa, established dons like Altobello, the Archbishop and Vatican personages up through the Italian government and police (we note mention of “P2” – a kind of secret society that was famously associated with the Italian government for many years). Michael, whose ideas would ruin the “peace,” has to be killed. And, Michael realizes, the Pope probably also. Michael’s striving for legitimacy, he admits, is not possible “in this world.” His sin manifests in his resignation: the sin he commits is one of omission. He passes his powers over to Vincent, who will “preserve the power of the family” by any means necessary. That means killing Lucchesi (via Calo on a suicide mission), having assassins smother Keinzig, Neri shooting Gilday at the Vatican, and Connie poisoning Altobello, her own godfather, with the birthday gift of cannolis (made by nuns, of course). By shifting the burden of his violent responsibilities to Vincent, Michael may think he is separating himself from the cycle of violence. But his action should be to, however irrationally, step on the snake's head before violence happens.
In addition to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, where a ruler with a bloody history is forced to atone for his distant past, one of the key influences on The Godfather Part III was Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, where the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) comes to understand how the old aristocracy of Sicily is passing away. His species is becoming extinct under the March of History, as Garibaldi changes the face of Italy. Granted, Coppola’s film lacks the oftentimes satirical sting of Visconti (The Godfather is somber from the get-go), but it’s still hard not to see similarities between the aging Michael and Prince Fabrizio, both increasingly aware of their mortality. There’s a shot of Michael shaving, Vincent standing in the mirror behind him, recalling a similar encounter in The Leopard between the Prince and his nephew, the unruly and sexy Tancredi (Alain Delon), who rides with the wave of history, changing his spots accordingly: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” And whatever changes occur, the power structures, ancestrally linked to what we see in Godfather III, will find a way to adapt and maintain control: “Ours is a country of arrangements.” Garibaldi is not the freedom fighter he says that he is. The melancholy at the heart of Prince Fabrizio, who may be much more internal than Tancredi, mirrors the dynamic between Michael and Vincent. When Michael says, “I can’t do it anymore,” he is exhibiting the same sad resignation of Fabrizio, walking alone through Sicily’s alleys into the dark future.
The crowning of Vincent as the new Don Corleone ends with Michael closing himself out of the room, the music and image hushing to black, then fading into Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana overture. During the Palermo premiere of Anthony’s first opera performance, the final acts of violence, alongside Mosca’s stalking of Michael, will simmer and boil. It is here, for me as a viewer, that Godfather III finally hits a consistent gear that carries on to the conclusion. The first exchange is between Vincent and Altobello, meeting on the crowded opera house steps. Michael is lost, the old man reminds Vincent. “Think of yourself,” he whispers, the unholy sentiment Coppola believes contradicts that which is honorable about family, and also feeds the economic interests that keep corruption running, where nephew can betray uncle (or brother can kill brother).
Michael discovers that he’s won: John Paul I has ratified the Corleone deal with Immobilaire. On more than a single count, this action proves too late. Gilday has arranged to have the Pope’s tea poisoned, which is carried out before Neri arrives to kill Gilday. And even though Michael has secured himself as one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet – now a victorious pillar of social and political respect – he is still existentially vulnerable. And so are the ones he loves. The final act of The Godfather is no longer running on a retributive cycle of logical causality, but is in the transcendent hands of Fate, cosmically ushered by Michael’s sin of resignation. The tension is between the ineluctable phantom of Destiny and the earthly awareness of Time.
Coppola crosscuts between the opera (whose title translates to “Rustic Chivalry” – bearing the motifs and tropes of the culture that gave birth to The Godfather narrative), the family calmly sitting in their special box seats, Altobello eating his cannolis, the unstoppable assassin Mosca roaming through the hallways and backstage area, and Corleone bodyguards searching for him (interwoven with the Vatican City and Roman settings and the carrying out of several murders). Coppola masterfully weaves all of these character and setting strands together, accompanied by the orchestra playing for what transpires on stage and off. Art and Life collide and become each other. The rush with which Coppola directs this sequence, perhaps inspired by Visconti’s Senso and Hitchcock’s remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much (yet transcending both), makes for suspense filmmaking that is rarely equaled.
The deaths appear one by one as the opera rushes to its tragic conclusion (anyone familiar with the Mascagni opera will know that Coppola has heavily revised its structure to fit his own ends). The Pope’s poisoned tea is delivered as a requiem chorus begins, the opera stage showing figures in white robes (recalling the festa preceding Zasa’s death) holding a great Madonna statue, and women praying with black garments over their heads. In Keinzig’s office, a rosary falls over the banker’s sleeping face and he is quickly smothered by a pillow. Coppola cuts back to the opera, interlacing it with images of Vincent’s dead twin bodyguards, handled all-too-easily by Mosca, who aims his rifle at Michael from a high perch (his plan being foiled as Michael is pulled away by Harrison, and Andrew Hagen assuming the seat). A nurse discovers the Pope’s corpse; the Archbishop prays over a rosary after hearing her cries. Calo infiltrates Lucchesi’s office and delivers his “secret message” from Michael Corleone: “I must whisper it in your ear.” He delivers a line that Luccesi no doubt delivered in life (it is famous for being the words of the man who inspired the character, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti: “Power wears out those who don’t have it,” indicating the political fantasy of this execution), grabs the politician’s glasses, and tears his aorta open. Originally, this moment was to have a great arterial spurt, which would have made the influence of Kurosawa more explicit (an NC-17 rating did not permit it to be in the final film). It remains gruesome and shocking, the imagery of glasses and blood telling us that Michael Corleone has not changed, as it alludes to the death of Moe Greene in Godfather I. Meanwhile, Neri shoots the Archbishop, dumping his corpse over a great spiral stairway, a startlingly beautiful image. In the spirals of time, this nefarious and corrupted official who “played for time” is reduced to an opulent corpse accompanied by a background choir. It captures the opulence and emptiness of Christendom. Meanwhile, Keinzig’s corpse hangs over a bridge, money falling from his pockets. Altobello, who knew the words of the opera by heart (actor that he is), is dead, poisoned by cannolis. His last performance was attended by his goddaughter and murderer, Connie, who spied him throughout the night more than the action on stage. The Corleone ritual of death has been perfectly acted and scored.
There is no sense of a separation between the Sacred and Profane, and these brilliant, ecclesiastical and yet satanic images point out that virtue is always haunted by the shadow of violence. On stage, black skull-faced figures carry a blanketed cross with a life-sized Christ icon. The image of the crucifixion, the symbol of senseless suffering in the Passion, sends them fleeing when the icon is exposed. The world, as it is, is surrounded by images of Christ’s irrational compassion but death always is there like a shadow in its wake. It also recalls the suffering and exposure of St. Sebastian. For Michael to live up to the content of his prayers, he must endure exposure, passion, and suffering, modeled by the Christian icons.
The opera ends, and as the Corleones triumphantly exit, making their way down the purple steps to safety, Michael notes, “When they hear the name Corleone, they’re going to think of a voice.” But voices in The Godfather arena kill, like the poison delivered to King Hamlet’s ear, or the whispered words between Calo and Don Lucchesi. Another voice stalks the opera stairs. We hear Mosca’s son, making his unforgettable donkey call: a voice is performed, through speech (as Michael has been doing throughout the whole film, trying to redefine himself) or the glories of singing, be it Anthony in opera or Mosca’s son doing his donkey, but like in the “The Mouse Trap” of Hamlet, Art is Personal, linked with Death. Michael will soon also find his true voice in a scream that ends the world.
As the bodyguards investigate the donkey-caller, Mary, who's been ignored by Vincent at Michael’s request, confronts her father. “Dad, why are you doing this to me?” she asks. Michael turns to Mary and asks “What is it? Doing what?” Before she can fully confront him (Anthony is also trying to talk – notice how everyone is talking but communication is coming up short), Mosca materializes and fires his gun twice. We see Michael fall, his hand clutching his slide. Coppola cuts to a wider shot of the opera steps, everyone scurrying and ducking. In the skirmish, Mosca is unexpectedly grabbed by the other priests (a kind of funny joke, being that the Vatican seems to be closely connected with brute force in this story – something Mosca didn‘t take into account), then shot by Vincent. Everyone looks around to get a sense of what’s happened. Michael rises, wounded but not mortally. He is startled by what is in front of him.
The only person left standing after the gunshots is Mary, a thick stain of crimson growing on her chest. She looks at her father and confusedly says, “Dad?" dropping like a rag doll – or the puppet from The Baroness of Carini (remember how she has been essentially the Corleone Foundation’s puppet all along) – and dying.
It’s here where I should return to the casting of Sofia Coppola and the problem it poses, now especially in retrospect. The suddenness of her shooting, in addition to the genuine incomprehension and horror displayed on the faces of all the surrounding players – Michael, Kay, Connie, Harrison, Vincent, Anthony, and particularly Andrew praying in the background – make its tragic implications effective. After Michael has resigned himself of the corpse and Kay scoops her up, so much like a lifeless doll in her arms, the opera’s famous Easter intermezzo fades in on the soundtrack. Though the credit may be given to how well Pacino will play the next few moments, I cannot condemn Sofia Coppola. The conclusion is heartbreaking. There’s something about her innocence and lack of experience that, while tarnishing so much elsewhere, particularly the love story, works perfectly well here.
In close-up, Pacino’s hands cover his face fully, the watch on his left hand quite conspicuous: there never was, after all, enough time. He suddenly jolts himself back, his mouth wide open and hands moving slowly outward. As he issues his silent scream, and the music drowns out the remaining cries, we see the Corleones looking at this iron man, whom is now, finally, in public light, broken open. Kay and Vincent seem startled out of their grief, as if they were actors all along, and their co-star is genuinely breaking down. Spittle is on Michael's chin as he wavers back and forth in a kind of living rigor mortis, his wind going in and out. Finally, with one last inhalation, his scream finds a voice, a scream suiting the true meaning of his life. "When they hear the name Corleone, they're going to think of a voice." Yes. He falls forward, then back once again, his eyes drifting up and away into unconsciousness.
This is Michael as St. Sebastian the martyr, exposed in his suffering and tragically invincible (the bullet doesn’t seem to have affected him at all). Like his diabetic afflictions elsewhere, the body cries out long-repressed truths. The mask comes off.
Coppola leaves the mourners on the steps, police officers ascending the steps as the sound of tapping glasses – meant to suggest a drift into Michael’s memories – fades over the soundtrack. Falling deep into his past, Coppola cuts to a trio of waltzes involving Michael with the women in his life: Mary at his papal ceremony, Apollonia during his first wedding, and Kay during Anthony’s Communion celebration. The dances dissolve to a close-up of a weathered old man, perhaps more than ten years in the future. Coppola has since stated “1997”, meaning that this final moment, at which time Michael would be 78, takes place long after Godfather III’s release date – a narrative logic probably born out of the unrealized developments with Mario Puzo for The Godfather Part IV, which was planned and abandoned in 1999, or perhaps because it is the year when Francis Ford Coppola made his final studio film, The Rainmaker, going on a ten-year hiatus before committing himself to smaller self-financed projects. Michael's release from life is Coppola's release from the grip of Hollywood studios.
The old Michael’s appearance, his hair longer, his face an emblem of sadness, indicates that he has long since given hope up, living with a depressive and defeated resignation, even though he is the biggest landlord on earth, holding all the strings but still empty. Perdition for Michael Corleone is to endure life long after his daughter was killed for his actions and affiliations. We can assume, given his diabetic condition, the dogs surrounding him, dark glasses, and his cane, that he may be afflicted with blindness and crippling foot problems, with nothing but the pain of memories to accompany his deserved loneliness.
Again, many will note the similarities to Lear, and the way Michael earlier cries over Mary’s corpse, screaming “Oh God no!” as he clings to her, certainly is reminiscent of Lear mourning his virtuous daughter Cordelia. Lear cries over her corpse, “Break, heart, I prithee break.” This is “the promised end,” to quote Kent, of the tragedy of Michael Corleone, but Lear’s prayer of death is answered. He screams “O, O, O, O!” and dies of his grief. The same holds true for Lord Hidetora in Ran, whose son Saburo is shot soon after their reunion. His heart gives out, the faithful servant Tango telling the surrounding servants, “Do not call his spirit back! Would you have him suffer more?”
But think of the irony: Michael Corleone always wins. He’s invincible. Mosca, the best assassin in Sicily, shot him point blank, and he barely even registers the wound. Woe is the Corleone victory, and if only he could die. His silent scream is his body trying to eradicate his life and extinguish himself, to “break, heart, I prithee break”: "O, O, O, O!" But no. The gods decree that he endure the memory of his sins and beloved daughter for years. His ending is more horrible than his literary counterparts, and it brilliantly concludes Coppola’s tragedy on a note of melancholic irony. The film was to be titled The Death of Michael Corleone, and yet his death is distantly removed from the convolutions of the preceding 160 minutes. The outcome, unique to the tragic form, is that he lived, fading away instead of escaping through a gracious burn out. He has been “playing for time,” as is the custom for us all, locked in his bones to “contemplate eternity.”