The Godfather Part II: Coppola's Mothers

The Godfather Part II begins with Michael Corleone’s ring kissed by a mafia soldier, the camera focusing on the father’s empty chair in the background. Though in control, Michael has still not psychologically assumed the throne. The image of the chair fades to black, and as if in a dream opens deep in the past on the Sicilian countryside, the insects chirping as a funeral procession approaches. 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, doubtless passing his virulent traits onto descendants Santino and Vincent Mancini.

 Vito introduced, at his mother's side. 

Vito introduced, at his mother's side. 

Vito, pale and thin, is introduced at his mother’s side. His silences and penetrating glances augur the icy intelligence possessed by the lofty figure we know he’ll become. The procession is broken up by the sounds of gunfire, creating a frenzied skirmish. A woman in the distance yells, “They killed your son! They killed Paolo!” Coppola cuts to a body 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. The sanctity of fraternal blood ties, overlooked by a maternal one, is the key dianoia of the next 200 minutes. The image of Vito sympathetically absorbing his crying mother over her other son 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 a youngest son’s tortured relationship with his older brothers: the biological “passed-over” misfit brother Fredo and adopted brother Tom Hagen. Texturing this is 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.

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The prologue also introduces a motif of practical necessity. Coupled with the sentiments of family in wake of the Andolini murders are the 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 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 necessary to levee contingency’s vagaries. Ciccio’s desire to kill nine-year-old Vito is not born out of malice towards the boy or his mother, or even the original Antonio Andolini “insult”: it again returns to the quandary of “personal” and “business.” Ciccio wants to pre-emptively solve a problem before it has time to bud and become another vendetta.

A woman’s plea to a mafia chieftain for mercy will be repeated in the film, at least twice to the adult Vito, and then quite significantly to Michael near the end. Compare Ciccio 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 tragic irony is that Michael becomes the double of Don Ciccio, the man who would murder his father.

 Connie pleads to Michael on behalf of Fredo. 

Connie pleads to Michael on behalf of Fredo. 

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 the gun-blast. His primary instinct was not to flee, but to come forward to her aid. He relies on the kindness of loyal family friends to 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 “savior 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 central to 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 individuals changing within their culture. Vito’s severance from his mother makes him a boy without a family or country, renamed by 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 phantasmagoric Father is the past’s lingering ghost, but the Mother represents the ties to the Old World. She is the naval root, the omphalos center. It’s only when Carmella Corleone, Vito’s widow, dies that Michael goes through with fratricide. Fredo is killed while reciting a Hail Mary, the Catholic prayer that pays tribute to the Mother of God whose “fruit of thy womb” was the world savior, Christ. The mother’s death incepted the Corleone saga, and the mother’s death likewise signals its 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 from the naval, silently preserving the memory of what he lost. Ellis Island in 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 Carmella Corleone and her daughter Connie.

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The first lines uttered in this section of the film (other than Father Carmello’s First Communion prayers) are Connie’s “Mama! Mama!” as she swerves through the glitzy lakeside party to her mother’s seat, holding the hand of her WASPy fiancé, Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue). The niceties of child to mother interaction are performative, as the superficial Connie, garish and loud (and doubtlessly traumatized), proclaims that she has a “gift for my mama,” handing her an expensive piece of jewelry. Meanwhile, Merle kisses Mama on the cheek. Carmella Corleone is annoyed. During the wedding of Part I, Carmella was a lively force, singing Sicilian songs on the stage and dancing (Morgana King, invaluable in the role, was a jazz singer). 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 sole 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 who offer canapés but what Frankie recognizes as “chopped liver and a Ritz cracker.” He then tries to get the mainstream band to play a tarantella. Carmella stands behind Pentangeli while he irately says, “Out of thirty professional musicians, there isn’t one Italian!” He tries to get an Italian melody started, but only gets “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The moment is funny, but in the context of a film about Time, it’s also melancholy. The world of Frank Pentangeli and Carmella 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 tarantellas of Part I revised as "Pop, Goes the Weasel." 

The tarantellas of Part I revised as "Pop, Goes the Weasel." 

Her sole 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 who offer canapés but what Frankie recognizes as “chopped liver and a Ritz cracker.” He then tries to get the mainstream band to play a tarantella. Carmella stands behind Pentangeli while he irately says, “Out of thirty professional musicians, there isn’t one Italian!” He tries to get an Italian melody started, but only gets “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The moment is funny, but in the context of a film about Time, it’s also melancholy. The world of Frank Pentangeli and Carmella Corleone, so idiosyncratic during the wedding of Part I with the right wine (as opposed to “champagne cocktails”), sandwiches, and music, has moved on.

Maternally antipodal to Carmella is her daughter, 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 Connie 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 retaliates. So 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 a purely economical machine, an empty symbol. Both traditional masculine and feminine functions are in decline.

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A third noteworthy female character in Tahoe 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 Carmella 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, feckless Fredo struggles to control her. She insults him while referring to her dance partner, “You’re just jealous because he’s a real man!” Fredo fumes. “Deanna, I swear I’m gonna belt you in the teeth!” “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’!”

Of course, we should hope Fredo wouldn’t belt his mama. But what this moment suggests is that the fortunate few living “the good life” in America have little sense of anything sacramental in family relationships, best represented by 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 problematic, conservative sexual politics, is also a film about revolutions: personal, political, and sexual. The last woman we must consider 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 she is 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, expecting her to obediently stay within the Lake Tahoe compound. Michael has removed himself from the paternal role (gifts to the children are handled by Hagen), so how is Kay supposed to go about her maternal one? “I’m a prisoner in my own house, is that it?” she apoplectically says to Hagen. “That’s not the way we look at it, Kay,” as if the Corleones (“we”) were a corporation and not a family. 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.

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 Neglected wives in the New World: Kay Corleone and the heroine of "Senza Mama." 

Neglected wives in the New World: Kay Corleone and the heroine of "Senza Mama." 

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 doubles for the prologue’s Ellis Island as a violinist 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 mother in Naples, going to America for a “no good tramp.” He’s feeling despondent and alone in America, thinking of his mother from whom he’s received no news. New York’s ghetto is not a land of opportunity, but a sad reminder of the world they left behind, which only reaches out to them with news of death. The mother’s death 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 another 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 her weepy insistence moves him. Since the death of her husband, her home is her umbilicus to her sense of value and identity. He thinks about it and agrees to have a chat with the landlord, Signor Roberto. The pleas of Signora Colombo are very crucial in the comparative exegesis of Vito and Michael. The rational thing would be for the young mafia don to offer her money to move. But the weeping widow in black is a reflection of what he witnessed in his mother’s last moments. Signora Colombo brings Vito back to his omphalos, and he is helpless. As he listens to her, behind him there is a picture of the Virgin Mary with infant Christ. Symbolism is valued over reason.

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 Signora Colombo makes her plea to Don Corleone, the Holy Mother behind him, a scene subtly reminiscent of his mother's supplication to Ciccio for Vito's life. 

Signora Colombo makes her plea to Don Corleone, the Holy Mother behind him, a scene subtly reminiscent of his mother's supplication to Ciccio for Vito's life. 

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 pertinacious to the eviction after hearing Vito’s insistence that “the dog stays.” The fact that Roberto and Vito are paisan doesn’t matter; what matters is that the new tenants pay more rent and Roberto can rent out more apartments with the dog gone. This leads to the trilogy’s most playful 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 its ostensible interest in Sicilian olive oil imports). 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, the Virgin Mary icon is behind Vito, and Roberto begins his penitent visit by invoking “Holy Mary!”

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 The Holy Mother adorns the background of Don Corleone's business, as 40 years later his widow dies, and the Corleone family descends into fratricide and isolation. 

The Holy Mother adorns the background of Don Corleone's business, as 40 years later his widow dies, and the Corleone family descends into fratricide and isolation. 

The maternal bond’s demise plays out in the final act. Michael will not kill Fredo as long as their mother is alive. Once she’s gone, he will settle all accounts, including ordering the death of his brother. The old symbolism is wiped out by Michael’s efficiency, so much like Don Ciccio, the “reasonable” man who killed Michael’s grandparents and tied 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 “Hail Mary,” the prayer to the Holy Mother and the secret to catching the big fish. Under Michael Corleone, the prayer is meaningless.

Mother Love has in turn rejected Michael and his dreams. Before Carmella Corleone’s death, and just after sealing his victory by evading incarceration for perjury, Kay discloses a truth. Michael believed that Kay had a miscarriage, and that she blamed it on his absence and neglect. “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 a galvanized 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).

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 Severance from the birth canal: Kay's abortion, and an anonymous prostitute's grisly murder. After Kay's disclosure, the film decisively is "broken" from the past, its time transition a brusque cut instead of an elegant dissolve. 

Severance from the birth canal: Kay's abortion, and an anonymous prostitute's grisly murder. After Kay's disclosure, the film decisively is "broken" from the past, its time transition a brusque cut instead of an elegant dissolve. 

Kay understands that the symbolism has ossified 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 final flashback, as Vito goes back to Sicily to carry out his revenge on the elderly Ciccio; unlike all of the other flashback introductions, it is a straight cut instead of a slow dissolve, denoting the absolute separation between present to past, or children to parents. Time itself is aborted. Kay becomes the anti-Virgin Mary, but her transgression is a necessary symbolic action that tells the truth to Michael.

The sanguine imagery is grotesquely realized 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. 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 customary 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 the birth canal between her legs (making the image more unsettling). The Mother is absent, little more than a relic adorning the empty Catholic rituals. The fruit is cut off from the root, like the films’ ominous oranges.

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The circle of motherhood closes when once more, like at the conclusion of The Godfather, the door is closed on Kay Adams Corleone. Her separation from Michael imminent, Kay asks Anthony to come and kiss her once more before she leaves, the looming darkness of the increasingly onanistic father (unlike the other Corleones, Michael has no mistress), approaching. Anthony moves aside as Michael approaches the door. Michael looks upon the mother of his children and closes the door on her, the mother’s weeping closed off, an inflection of what we've heard elsewhere through Vito's mother and Signora Colombo. Michael frames 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 maternal icon, 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 boat.

Originally written in the summer of 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.

The Godfather Project: 

1. Decline of a Family

2. "I Believe in America"

3. Enough Time

4. American Horizon

5. Coppola's Mothers

6. Revolutions

7. "Between the Brothers"

8. The Fruit to the Root

9. "Time, Who Eats His Own Young: Coppola, Corleone, and Catiline in "Megalopolis"

10. From the Stage to the Streets

11. "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"

12. "The Body Cries Out"