The Godfather Part III: "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"

At the conclusion of The Godfather Part II, the Corleone household is hermetically sealed. Ornately decorated, there is no discourse in the Lake Tahoe estate. Michael’s lethargic appearance, indicative of his decay (Coppola describes him as “syphilitic, like Dorian Gray”), displays a character that’s lost historical context, content with the vines of isolation growing around him, separating him not only from the larger society, but his own family. There was a pretense of openness in The Godfather Part II, with its wide open exteriors and boundless setting, from Nevada to Miami to Cuba to New York to Sicily, from 1901 to 1959. By Godfather III, Michael’s world is enclosed, many New York sets being artificial constructs at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the skyline outside the Corleone residence blatantly artificial. The atmosphere is a presentiment to the incest that follows. The opening of Godfather III is a haunting mosaic of the now-abandoned Tahoe estate: empty, flooded, with broken windows (most conspicuously those spider-web designs), neglected dolls, and a Madonna swathed in darkness, the omen of Michael’s ultimate sacrilege. The familiar Nino Rota score is completed with thundering uneasiness, an aural shadow. In a voiceover is the unfamiliar, huskier voice of Michael reading from a letter. He has long since moved away from Nevada, and is back in New York, now, in 1979, to receive an honor from the Catholic Church.

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Michael wants Anthony and Mary to convince Kay (now remarried to a judge – suggesting that she wanted to get as far away from illegality as possible) to come to his ceremony, with the hopes that the four of them may have stable “family function.” “The only wealth in this world is children,” Michael writes. “More than all the money and power on earth. You are my treasure.” Coppola, mourning the loss of his son, is writing this from his heart.

The first sight of 60-year-old Michael Corleone at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, bowing to receive the insignia from Archbishop Gilday, is striking. His face has been sapped of potency from the inside out. He suffers from diseases of the body (we learn that Michael is an insulin-dependent diabetic) that mirror the diseases of his mind. Whether in Commendatore uniform or in an expensive suit, with his spiked iron-man hair, deep shadowy lines, and deliberate speech, Michael is playing a role in social theatre. Looking closely, we can see the despair behind the façade. He has a stiff gait and is hunched over, suggesting a spiritual castration, if not a physical one (the question of sexual impotence is addressed in an early draft of Coppola and Puzo’s screenplay). As Gilday prays through the ritual, Michael thinks of his brother reciting the Hail Mary on Tahoe.

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The ritual sets the confessional tone for the story. The colors of St. Patrick’s accent a golden autumn palette suggesting a longing redemption. Michael is now as old as his father was at the beginning of Part I, and though his wrinkles crease his face in shadow, he still lacks his father’s noble sprezzatura, or natural resolve. He is morally conflicted. In the first film, he was similarly introduced in uniform and at a crossroads. He’s come full circle, distant from the character that emerged after the return from Sicily in 1949 and whom we left in 1959.

What we see happening behind him – Connie making the sign of the cross, Joey Zasa bowing and doing the same before sitting in a pew, and then Al Neri standing in front of a Madonna with candles lit before it – addresses an explicit cultural inquiry: this world is surrounded by Christ, but where is Christ? The icons are everywhere, the values espoused by everyone (“Do you Michael pledge to have a special care for the poor and the needy, and those who are ill?” so much like the baptism from Part I), and yet within the parishioners, there’s nothing. Here in this introduction, with its overabundance of Catholic symbols, Coppola doesn’t need to say that violence is the ironic juxtaposition to the values of Christ: it’s the arid dryness of our everyday lives. One doesn’t have to be a gangster to be in a psychological double bind. We are all dry stones in a fountain, not penetrated by water.

Michael is receiving the crest of St. Sebastian, a martyr often depicted in art as a beautiful, almost fully naked young man pierced by executioners’ arrows, suffering but not dying. According to legend, Sebastian survived the arrows (and was clubbed to death at a later date). Sebastian is the saint of exposure. His dignity is shoved to the wayside by his passion. His martyrdom associates with full disclosure, open suffering, with grief not withheld or performed.

 Don Novello (aka Father Sarducci) as the Corleone PR man, Dominic Abbandando. 

Don Novello (aka Father Sarducci) as the Corleone PR man, Dominic Abbandando. 

Compare this with Michael Corleone, the well-dressed billionaire Commendatore with the masklike countenance, a businessman who believes he can purchase grace. His abundant charities are a PR strategy that grants him papal favor. His Public Relations manager, Dominic Abbandando (grandson of Genco), rebukes mob-related press questions by saying, “The Pope, the Holy Father himself, has this day blessed Michael Corleone. You think you know better than the Pope?” (That Abbandando is portrayed by Don Novello, best known as the hypocritical Father Sarducci from Saturday Night Live, is a slyly humorous wink).

What matters to Michael is the public seal of forgiveness, the officially documented exchange of his debt being paid. He won’t shed his dignity. The passion of Sebastian, whose seal he now wears, accuses him. At the end, we will see Michael properly emulate this martyr, fulfilling the significance of the holy order. For now, he descends from the altar with the Archbishop’s blessing, the Marcia Religioso performed by the choir. The hypocrisy runs deep, as this was the same music that accompanied Fanucci at the festa in 1917 as he bought a rosary, put money on the Christ icon, and blew a kiss to it. Whereas Ciccio was Michael’s unlikely double in Part II, in Part III he is now paralleled with Fanucci.

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 Unlikely doubles, church-sanctioned heavies Michael Corleone and Don Fanucci. 

Unlikely doubles, church-sanctioned heavies Michael Corleone and Don Fanucci. 

The film cuts to a party at the new Corleone home in Manhattan. It is the next stage of degradation following the ethnic saturation of Connie’s wedding in Part I and the glitz of Part II’s Tahoe party. While Connie and Dominic try to rouse the crowd with old Sicilian songs, swanky late ‘70s elevator music paints the interims, and a tired Johnny Fontane charmingly smiles through “To Each His Own,” apparently Michael’s favorite song, though not good enough for the Commendatore to stick around (“I’m off to the kitchen to listen to some Tony Bennett records,” he jokes, saying he’ll be back – but he won’t).

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Michael’s daughter Mary is the fragile and warm-hearted apple in her father’s eye, but as “chairman” of the Vito Andolini Corleone Foundation, dedicated to helping Sicily’s poor, we might notice how “directed” she is by Dominic, her public offering of $100 million to Archbishop Gilday presented as an earnest charity, but we know it’s another part of the show. Unlike Mary, Kay sees through it. She congratulates Michael (whom she hasn’t seen in eight years). “Well Michael, that’s really quite an honor. It’s a little expensive, don’t you think?” Moments later in his study, she lays out her feelings more bluntly. “Now that you’re so respectable, I think you’re more dangerous than you ever were. In fact, I preferred you when you were just a common mafia hood.” With increasing anger she says, “I didn’t come here to see you disguised by your Church. I think that was a shameful ceremony.” Michael is resistant to Kay’s demand that he allow Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) go his own way as an opera singer. The performer (who knows that his father killed his uncle) understands how the stage extends beyond the theatre and into real life. Michael’s world of duplicity, with false friends, churchmen, bankers, and politicians, is an opera unconscious of itself. Appropriately, D’Ambrosio makes a more assured impression to us while on stage than he does in these scenes.

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The Godfather is now subset to a culture of pre-established texts and tropes that it itself created. Joey Zasa may never have read Shakespeare, but he knows enough to define Vincent Mancini, the bastard son of Santino Corleone, as “a stone in my shoe,” because “all bastards are liars, Shakespeare wrote poems about it.” Vincent’s retaliation, almost biting off Zasa’s ear, is also the stuff of the stage, as the ear-bite plays out in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana during the film’s final half-hour. Third generation Corleone Vincent is privy to a script, whether with Zasa (“They put me in a room with Joe Zasa, what’s going to happen? I bit the guy’s ear off”) or a shallow exchange with sexy Grace Hamilton (in bed she supplicates for an “I love you”).

The incestuous love story between Vincent and Mary is stuck on dialogue, “scripted” romancing, directed by culture, in stark contrast to the discrete whispers between Vincent’s parents, Santino and Lucy Mancini in Godfather I, or how Michael and Kay interact. Interestingly, in Michael and Kay’s early stages they are playful about their roles as lovers. As they exit Radio City Music Hall after seeing Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s, Kay asks, “Michael, would you like me more if I were a nun?...What if I were Ingrid Bergman?” By contrast, Mary and Vincent don’t seem conscious of popular culture’s influence. There’s something to critic Owen Gleibermann’s defense of Sofia Coppola’s awkward performance when he writes, “she’s obviously a non-actress, yet her Valley Girl nonchalance is apparently just what the director wanted. Coppola is saying that in a mass-culture age, even the daughter of a titan is as much a product of the world around her as she is of her family.” (Also note that Roger Ebert, who praised Godfather III along with Gene Siskel, was a defender of Sofia; for other glowing raves of the picture from major critics, see Janet Maslin’s piece from The New York Times, and Michael Wilmington from The Los Angeles Times; closeted Godfather III defenders may be legion, as I learned from Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri, who disclosed to me his own appreciation for it and how deeply personal it feels as a Coppola effort).

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The stand-off between Vincent and Zasa shows Michael’s own immobility. Zasa is essentially the Corleone inheritor, controlling the New York territory that belonged to the Genco Olive Oil Company. According to Connie and Vincent, however, “he runs it like a disgrace.” Though Vincent has been working for Zasa, Michael had originally offered Vincent “legitimate” work. Vincent is a foul-tempered hot-head like his father, fiercely devoted to family at the expense of reason. Vincent explains that Michael should let him kill Zasa, a two-faced scum who says “fuck Michael Corleone” all the time. “Say it to his face one time!” Vincent bids Zasa, who curtly flicks a cigarette. Michael, exhausted with a conflict in which he has “no interest or percentages” stands over Zasa and says, “If someone is saying, ‘Fuck Michael Corleone,’ what do we do with a piece of shit like that? He’s a fucking dog.” That’s it. No retributive action, just a label: “fucking dog.”  He says to Vincent later, “You are what you are.” A sinner like Michael can only accept an individual’s debits and go on living.

 Compare the family photos of 1945 to 1979. Few marriages remain intact, with children seemingly without parents, not to mention a couple treacherous figures. 

Compare the family photos of 1945 to 1979. Few marriages remain intact, with children seemingly without parents, not to mention a couple treacherous figures. 

Michael accepts Zasa’s tribute and asks Vincent to make his peace. They embrace, though Zasa whispers “Bastardo” to Vincent, prompting Vincent to clamp his teeth on Zasa’s ear, biting a good section off. These are rustic values at odds with the progressive and humanitarian appearance that the godfather seeks to construct for his family. Vincent reminds Michael what he doesn’t want to hear: “You’re involved with stocks and banks of Wall Street, but everyone knows you’re basically in charge.” His businessman persona is, as Kay told him, a disguise, and why people like Zasa secretly despise him.

Since Tom Hagen died, B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton) has come to represent the family’s business machinations, far removed from the “man-to-man” negotiations with which Vito Corleone involved himself. Harrison outlines the practices of the “legitimate” Corleone foundation: “It’s no different from any other large corporation; controlling a lot of money with very little; minimize taxes…no government control.” The Corleone Foundation may be “legitimate,” but it also represents a huge, unregulated business that can easily get out of hand.

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A church’s sacred pillars are dwarfed by the skyscrapers above it. Inside, Michael and Harrison have their meeting with Gilday, a greed-afflicted charlatan using his godly ornaments to disguise his true nature. Gilday supplicates the godfather for money to quench a $700 million deficit, for which the archbishop is to blame. Michael is well aware of Gilday’s problem, correcting him: “$769 million.” He offers a solution. “The church owns 25% of a large corporation. Immobiliare.” Harrison elaborates, “Largest landlord on earth, real estate all over the world worth $6 billion.” Michael continues, “And the Vatican vote is necessary for control.” Gilday is stunned by the proposition: Michael will help Gilday if the Archbishop can guarantee the Vatican’s endorsement of Michael’s bid to control a huge real estate organization, instantly making him one of the richest men in the world while establishing him clearly as a respectable pillar of the financial and political communities (and, as a landlord controlling the homes of millions of Europeans, a true pezzonovante).

“No. No, no, you’re mistaken,” Gilday says. “We have directors, we have rules – we have very old rules. The Pope himself would have to approve YOU…” Michael explains himself. “We’ve sold the casinos. All businesses having to do with gambling. We have no interest and investment in anything illegitimate.” Harrison rises, “The Corleone family is prepared to deposit $500 million in the Vatican bank at such time as Mr. Corleone receives majority control of Immobiliare.” Michael speaks now as the innovative businessman, “Immobiliare could be something new: a European conglomerate.” Gilday replies nervously with a key line worth repeating, “It seems that in today’s world, the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” and, as the skyscraper peering over the cathedral demonstrates, he’s right. “$600 million.” Michael tellingly counters, “Don’t overestimate the power of forgiveness.” Gilday, however, has Michael’s number. “This deal with Immobiliare could make you one of the richest men in the world. Your whole past history, and the history of your family, will be washed away.” That’s the key. He repeats himself. “$600 million.” The godfather is approached with an offer that he can't refuse. If Michael succeeds, he will "officially" achieve redemption without having to repent.

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“Immobiliare” is a Coppola joke. Michael is immobile as a mob boss and patriarch, just as the interests around him, legitimate and criminal, are devoted to keeping things in their original place (as long as the capital flow is consistent). He becomes prey to the demands of his mob ties. The elderly Don Altobello claims to be speaking for Michael’s former partners on the Commission, but in truth is pointing out his own frustrations. He says that Michael should let the other bosses in on the deal – “to purify their money.” Michael is insistent, however, that Immobiliare be a completely legitimate enterprise. Though fiercely independent, he is not free. The fact that he has so much power is what makes him vulnerable, much like his father and the Commission’s drive for narcotics in 1945.

More nefarious than the greedy new world gangsters of the Commission are the Old Europe political forces with whom Michael has voluntarily become entangled. In Vatican City to meet with other Immobiliare shareholders, Michael and Harrison learn that Pope Paul VI, who was going to ratify the Vatican vote giving Michael control, is near death (immobile, as it were!) These European businessmen, beginning their meeting with customary prayers, remind the Corleones that they are not yet at the helm. “The Vatican vote must be ratified here, in Rome, by the Pope,” says the man known as “God’s Banker,” Frederick Keinzig (Helmet Berger). Without the Pope’s authorization, Gilday is powerless. The meeting’s purpose, so it turns out, is for the Europeans to relay the message to Michael that “all bets are off.” Michael has already deposited large amounts of money, which is no doubt being distributed to corrupt figures in high places. These “legitimate” criminals are quick to remind Michael Corleone, whether as a Mafioso or a business maverick, that he is not one of them.

 Don Lucchesi, the politician modeled on Andreotti. 

Don Lucchesi, the politician modeled on Andreotti. 

He’s confronted by an ominous Italian politician named Licio Lucchesi, who stands out with his thick rimmed glasses. “You will take control of our little fleet,” he says, “but our ships must all sail in the same direction.” In other words, as controller of the board, Michael would not be able to have any ability to mobilize his ideas to pool wealth and share markets. He would be controller in title only, circumscribed by the status quo. Lucchesi threatens Michael, “Otherwise, who can say how long your stay with us will last. It’s not personal. It’s only business. You should know, Godfather.” Michael is trying to step out of his Godfather world (and into Megalopolis), but whether it’s Connie at home (“Now they’ll fear you”) or Lucchesi in the boardroom, he’s fed lines from the old screenplays.

Steaming, Michael compares these Catholic businessmen to the Borgias. Immobiliare, the “legitimate” business, is tainted by the corruption of these pezzonovante. This becomes more apparent during the Atlantic City Commission meeting, where Michael essentially buys his way out of the mob. “Friends, we have prospered, and now our business is done,” he says. To go amiably, he hands out hundreds of millions of dollars in casino shares to the old dons. But Michael’s affiliations won’t release him. Zasa is upset that he is getting no money (he didn’t invest), and throws a tantrum, pinpointing Michael as his enemy. The other dons still want a piece of Immobilaire, one of them pointing out that Michael’s “legitimate” company has already been laundering money in Peru and Nassau: so why shouldn’t the Vatican’s “holy water” also wash their money clean?

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None of this matters, as a helicopter attack kills almost everyone at the meeting. The Atlantic City sequence is very revealing about Coppola’s attitude and approach in Godfather III. The style of the attack feels like the kind of action set piece that dominated post-Godfather Hollywood throughout the 1980s. In contrast to the mob meetings of the first two films, the Atlantic City party is gauche and tacky, the dons less like reserved businessmen and more like gluttons, passing around a plate of jewelry as hookers and lounge music perfumes the air (the scene also is similar to a secret meeting of Union bosses at the Tammany Building in Megalopolis, where the Machiavellian 'wild rich youth' Claude Hamilton, similar to Zasa in how he employs the city's minorities, rains death from above by having the roof collapse). Continuing the performance motif, Michael gives his “speech” of gratitude and resignation, followed by Zasa’s hammy response which again is pure theater: “You will not give, I’ll take!” There is indication that Zasa, the magazine-cover “Best-Dressed Gangster,” had worked out the staging of this monologue beforehand, if we notice how he interacts with his co-conspirator and co-star, Don Altobello, who knows exactly when to exit stage left before the onslaught of gunfire arrives.

Michael is impotent to act when the attack begins; Vincent pulls him up and rushes him out with Neri’s help. Tom Santopietro writes of the scene, “When Michael is faced with an attempted assassination, the spectral presence of blinding lights, whirling blades, and helicopter-mounted machine guns seems to render him incapable of movement, and he is saved only by Vincent’s quick thinking. Coppola is underlining Michael’s decline through his lack of action; the aging don is no longer in total control, and the torch has been passed to the new generation.” The king eager to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his peers, like Lear, is “pulled back in” to a role he has forgotten how to play.

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Back home and wondering who is directing this conspiratorial drama, Michael stammers, drinks water, is low on breath, and short on temper. “Our true enemy has not yet shown his face,” he says. He becomes dizzy and collapses, shrieking in the grips of what appears to be an uncontrollable seizure. He spasmodically says irrational things. The thunder and lightning behind him again evoke Lear: “Run at thunderbolt! Thunder can’t hurt! Harmless noise…bullshit!” And then, with Neri and Vincent holding him down as his body violently shakes, Michael viciously spits truth: “You deceitful old fuck! Altobello you fuck!” The portents of the storm reveal Zasa’s backer; and then, his reasonable facade lost to him, his remorse surfaces before the loss of consciousness: “Fredo!”

Michael’s seizure was triggered by diabetes. Michael’s father had gunshots incapacitate him; but Michael is tortured by that which is coming from within, which is far less evasive than stalking assassins. The brush with death forces Harrison to stress the importance of the Immobilaire deal going through, with the financial (and spiritual) interests of Michael Corleone entering a race with time. Gilday, however, appears to have been swindling Corleone with the aid of Keinzig. “Play for time,” is his philosophy, which has been the Corleone philosophy for years in regards to their play for legitimacy. “A habit born of a long contemplation of eternity.” As every Catholic knows, there is always time to repent later.

 "When they come, they'll come at what you love." Michael's warning to Vincent. 

"When they come, they'll come at what you love." Michael's warning to Vincent. 

Connie and Neri give Vincent approval to publicly assassinate Joey Zasa during a festa. Of the three plotters, it’s Connie who is the most reluctant to apologize to Michael, who’s upset about such an order. Whe, as the only other second generation Corleone, remains devoted to her father’s way of handling things. Talia Shire here exhibits something that Godfather III is lacking when compared to its forebears: an abundance of strong supporting characters. Connie, compared to the more predictable American lot like “third generation” godfather Vincent or mob heavy Zasa, is mesmerizing as the cold and arcane Vengeful Widow, particularly given the restrictive sexual politics of the Corleone family.

Michael, alert to Vincent’s relationship with Mary, has a warning. “When they come, they’ll come at what you love.” What primarily bothers Michael is not the sexual taboo of first cousins (he’s courted incest through his tragic isolation), or even that it’s his daughter, but the fact that Vincent’s relationship to an illegitimate world makes her vulnerable. Michael is thinking of Apollonia, about whom there has been no mention since her death in the first film.

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The action moves to Sicily. At the villa of his old protector Don Tommasino, joined by Harrison, Abbandando, Vincent, and one of Michael’s Sicilian bodyguards from the first film, Calo, Michael asks the aged don about Atlantic City. Tommasino believes that Lucchesi is responsible. “Italian politics have had these kind of men for centuries,” Michael says of Lucchesi. “They’re the true Mafia.” The idea of Lucchesi, all this time (as one of Gilday’s “friends” responsible for the $769 million deficit in the first place), was to take Corleone’s money and have him killed. Lucchesi and Gilday are the same problem.

Tommasino recommends Michael tell his financial woes to a powerful and trustworthy priest, Cardinal Lamberto. The incentive for Michael talking to a priest is that it allows him the possibility of “dealing with things in a civilized way,” even if his foes are criminals. Vincent, acting covertly for Michael, gives hints to Altobello that he would betray his uncle if the older don would help him further a marriage with Mary, the goal being to make Altobello believe that Vincent’s motives are to take over Michael’s fortune and separate it from legitimate business. Now in the old man’s trust, Vincent discovers that Altobello is colluding with Lucchesi, who backed Zasa from the beginning. The motivation for all of these dinosaurs is their desire to keep an established paradigm of business: Altobello refers to Vincent as “the peacemaker” and a “child of God,” given that he’ll ensure things remain as they are.

 Altobello introduces Vincent to his new "author," Lucchesi. 

Altobello introduces Vincent to his new "author," Lucchesi. 

This whole moment is grounded in Megalopolis: the Roman aristocracy aligned itself against Catiline because they disliked his economic ideas, and campaigned against him by noting his criminal history (in the screenplay he is thought to have murdered his wife and is prosecuted for the statutory rape of an underage pop star). Mayor Cicero notes, in conjunction with classic Godfather themes, “Politics is the personal made public.” The integrity of business and politics is secondary to keeping the means and methods of the establishment; finance and politics have no ends: “Finance is a gun; politics is knowing when to pull the trigger,” Lucchesi tells Vincent. Or as Michael says, “Politics and crime. They’re the same thing.”

Originally written summer 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"