The Godfather Trilogy: The Fruit to the Root
In what was to be The Godfather Part III’s opening scene, Michael and his associates take a meeting in the lavish St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison, the men dwarfed by huge maps. Michael colludes with Archibishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) for control of a European real estate conglomerate, Immobilaire, which would, in an official capacity, symbolize the Corleone family’s legitimacy. The circumstances and setting convey how this story is, so inverse to the “Go West” trajectory of Part II, a drift into the past, or an impossible dream to control time and destiny. Michael has moved back to New York, residing not in a Long Island suburb like the old Corleone estate, or in the Lower East Side near Genco Olive Oil, but in the Upper West Side. His journey leads back to the island of his dreamy interlude from Part I, where he’ll remain and die, the Corleone fruit falling at its root like the orange from a limp hand. It’s another parallel to his father, considering that in Part II Don Vito also went back home to Sicily, retracing his steps and rekindling ties to a distant family, as we see everybody at a grand table with relatives (presumably Carmella’s parents), and also solidifies his path as a criminal when he murders Don Ciccio.
I’ve pointed out that Michael’s unlikely double from The Godfather Part II was not necessarily his father, but Don Ciccio, the village mafia chieftain who murdered Vito’s father, mother, and brother. Like Don Ciccio, Michael hears the plea of a woman begging forgiveness on behalf of another: the Andolini widow for Vito, and Connie for Fredo. In both cases, the mafia dons choose logic and erase all of their enemies, even the most helpless ones (Vito and Fredo are referenced as equals, as Vito’s mother describes him as “dumb-witted,” while Fredo is very aware of how people think that he’s dumb). As with Ciccio, foul deeds come back in old age. In Ciccio's case it’s abrupt, an unexpected knife slashed through the torso; with Michael in Part III, it’s diabetes, slowly eating away at him over time, probably blinding and crippling him before he finally expires. His condition is aptly described by Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone): “The mind suffers and the body cries out.”
Vito’s Sicilian journey is commensurate with Michael’s dreamlike days in Part I and Part III. The oneiric calm and pastoral beauty is inextricable from a violent history, where “the rich pezzonovante” of the Church and State, and finally the mafia, exploit and control families. In Vito’s business of murder (taking into consideration Part II’s deleted scenes, where he not only kills Ciccio but also the old don’s body guards), his family still remains paramount. Bloodlines matter more to Vito than efficiency. The last thing he tells the elderly Don Ciccio before stabbing him is, “My father’s name was Antonio Andolini – and this is for you!” His father is at last avenged, and the town hall steps of Corleone are now dressed up in celebration. Michael's parallel victory inversely casts him in darkness.
Explosive violence comes with a softly spoken whisper to the ear: Bonasera to Vito in Part I, Vito to Ciccio and Michael to Fredo (just before he says “I knew it was you”) in Part II, Vincent (Andy Garcia) to Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and Calo (Franco Citti) to Don Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti) in Part III. There’s something to voices in The Godfather, where words and how they are spoken mean something – or don’t mean anything. In life, on stage, in politics, at the altar: where is a true voice found? And is that voice an emissary of truth or lies? If truth, it may be violence catching up to us. There's a debt to Hamlet, Shakespeare's play about plays, how theatrics infect the royal court, and where fratricide comes with poison to the ear.
The oranges become a metaphor for the fruit of one’s actions. You are not safe from the past, faraway on the distant branches, or back at the root. Life and death are hand in hand in The Godfather, the lifeless corpses of great men made equal by their ends. Observe the similarities in how Gordon Willis photographs the bodies from a static distance as nature (the wind, vegetation, animals) moves around them. But also think of the oft-repeated orange symbolism in the series, the fruity omen of doom escorting us through this journey:
Above, we see the orange’s symbolic function beginning as an accident, perhaps used for its color on film. It's ominous nature is attached first with Tessio, the eventual traitor who tosses it in the air, and later as highlighting props in front of Barzini during the Commission scene and then Hyman Roth in Part II's parallel Cuba meeting; Vito's assassination attempt is visually enriched with oranges scattering on the street, and then part of Brando's brilliant improvisation in Don Corleone's death scene (paralleled in Michael's, where an orange falls from his hand). In Godfather II, the orange is visible in dark interiors, as Johnny Ola offers one as "a gift from Hyman Roth" to Michael, who is later sucking on one while hatching nefarious plans. Corleone antagonists are further identified with the fruit, as Fanucci has one during the festa, portending his death at the hands of Vito, and in Part III with a framed painting of oranges behind Joey Zasa, who whispers his insult to Vincent (who will soon chew Zasa's ear off). The Atlantic City massacre has a conspicuous shot of an orange rolling from a fruit bowl before gunfire tears the room apart. In Sicily, the assassin Mosca and his nephew share oranges with Altobello while plotting Michael's murder. Vincent holds an orange while proposing more aggressive means of handling Corleone adversaries. Preceding his confession to Cardinal Lamberto, Michael's hypoglycemic weakness is ameliorated by some orange juice. And as Michael shows Kay the town of Corleone, a horse with a visible basket or oranges passes by the old town center, a rhyme with a similar basket holding Vito Andolini in the same setting 80 years before. The orange is one of the trilogy’s deepest mysteries, denoting family, maternity, death, murder, conspiracy, disease, and decay.
Originally written summer 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
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