The Godfather Part III: "The Body Cries Out"
“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.iii 253-257
The most important scene in Godfather III is Michael’s conversation with Cardinal Lamberto. Walking by stone pillars and fountains surrounded by pigeons, Michael explains his Vatican problem to Lamberto. Agreeing how this is scandalous, the priest 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, showing it to Michael. It’s dry. Michael motions into his pockets, then pulls 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 describing more than Catholic Europe; he’s explaining Michael to himself. As Lamberto outlines Christendom, Michael collapses on a bench and loosens his tie. He whispers that he needs some candy or orange juice. Coppola begins this conversation in a full two-shot, then slowly moves in on Michael as he falls, not cutting away while he struggles to keep his breath, diminished to a child in oversized adult clothing. The candy and juice is quickly brought out, and Michael thirstily, with uncharacteristic desperation, quaffs the juice and shakily tears open the candy wrappers, eating ravenously, some residual pulp 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. Lamberto points out that 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?” Michael is flabbergasted. “Your Eminence…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 waves his hand dismissively.
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, still walled away from anyone, the plants obscuring him. He voices his logic: “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?”
Lamberto humors Michael. “I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose?” An appeal to Michael’s rationality 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.
Both men are in full view on the outer edge of the pillars, buffered by sculpted vegetation. “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 Michael in a profile close-up, his eyes fluttering and his mouth agape. “I killed –” he stops a moment, refashioning his words. “I ordered the death of my brother.” Looking down, his face breaks up. “He injured me.” He looks up for air, beginning to weep. “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. Lamberto slowly turns to him, not surprised.
“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 issues the damning statement, “You will not change.” Cut back to the close-up of Lamberto from within the pillars. He blesses Michael. The redemption Michael seeks is right in front of him, but he, as a logical businessman, will remain dry as the stone in the fountain. 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 the focal scene in the whole trilogy. The parable of Lamberto transcends a Catholic priest’s lament. Closed off as Michael is, his pain is apposite. To fully absolve himself would mean to do something that he, as a "practical man," could never do. Like the corrupt officials in the Vatican, he too will “play for time,” the “habit born of the long contemplation of eternity.” Stressing this despairing point, Coppola cuts from Michael’s face within the foliage-embraced pillars to St. Peter’s in Rome, where the Vatican is obscured by pillars from within. Bells signal 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. “You will not change” applies to Michael Corleone and to America (and to Hollywood), whether in 1980, 1990, 2012, or 2018. Seeking forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
Michael sits with Connie, his 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?” While handling his insulin shot, Michael diagnoses the illness of Sicilian’s ancient culture, of murder for pride and family. As he injects, he tells Connie 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. Michael’s illness must be confronted, not nursed with more duplicity.
What follows is Altobello’s meeting with Mosca, a skilled assassin accompanied by a son who entertains Altobello with an irritating donkey impression (a wonderful Coppola detail). Mosca accepts the job to kill Michael, using a priest costume to get close. He takes advantage of Don Tommasino’s generous offer to give the frocked men a ride. Recognizing Mosca, Tommasino gives a vituperative look and 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, which continue to conflict with his reach toward forgiveness. Michael elucidates to Kay his bad decisions during their marriage, but then Calo interrupts with news of Tommasino's murder. “Blood calls for blood,” Calo passionately insists, supplicating Michael’s blessing for vengeance – which the godfather calmly gives. “It never ends,” Kay says to herself. This time, the doorway opened, she voluntarily exits the frame.
Cardinal Lamberto has been elected as the new pope, John Paul I, a fortuitous event for Michael. Lamberto, who does not “play for time,” is determined to handle Vatican matters “right away” instead of “a little while.” Immobilaire’s colluding circle is caught off guard by a Pope with “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, further bungling Gilday and Lucchesi’s plans.
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 may now lead to Michael’s similar triumph of spirit: he is kneeling over the coffin, attenuated as he was during his confession. It’s an audacious move by Coppola, who dares insert a soliloquy in a modern mafia film. Sometimes theatre is for guile, 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 incestuous relationship to Vincent, ending with a father stabbing his daughter; and sometimes mimesis is the heart’s sincere outpouring. Michael prays earnestly: “I swear on the lives on my children, give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.”
Immediately after making his vow he learns about Lucchesi’s web involving 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 associated with the Italian government for many years). Michael, whose ideas would ruin the “peace,” has to be killed. And, Michael realizes, the Pope is also a target. 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 abdication and inertia. 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 to make good on his prayer, he must step on the serpent’s head (like Catiline in Megalopolis or Dominic Mattei in Youth Without Youth, stopping time).
In addition to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, where a ruler with a bloody history is forced to atone for his 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. Garibaldi is changing the face of Italy, and the Prince recognizes he’s functionally a fossil. Michael and Prince Fabrizio, are 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 recalcitrant 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, powerful institutions, 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’s relationship to Tancredi mirrors the dynamic between Michael and Vincent. When Michael says, “I can’t do it anymore,” he is exhibiting the same sad resignation as Fabrizio, whose story ends with him walking alone through Sicily’s alleys into the dark.
The crowning of Vincent as the new Don Corleone ends with a rhyme with the first two movies, the door being closed on Michael, 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 that Godfather III, a fine but flawed film up to this point, 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 interests of corruption, where nephew can betray uncle (or brother can kill brother).
Inside the opera house, 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. But mortality overrides official ratification. Gilday has arranged to have the Pope’s tea poisoned, which is carried out before Neri arrives. 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. The final act of The Godfather is no longer running on a retributive cycle of logical causality, but is in the hands of Fate, cosmically ushered by Michael’s sin of resignation. The tension is between the unpreventable and the earthly awareness of a running clock, the audience quick to the diminishing running time.
Coppola crosscuts between the opera (whose title translates to “Rustic Chivalry” – bearing the cultural motifs and tropes that gave birth to The Godfather narrative), the family calmly sitting in their special box seats, Altobello eating his cannolis, the assassin Mosca roaming through hallways and the backstage area, and Corleone bodyguards searching for him (interwoven with the Vatican City and Roman settings, several murders carried out). Coppola weaves all of these 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—with antecedents like Visconti’s Senso, John Schlesinger and Williams Goldman's Marathon Man, and Hitchcock’s remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much—makes for suspense filmmaking that is rarely equaled in tension and gorgeousity.
The Pope’s tea is delivered as a requiem chorus begins, the opera stage showing figures in white robes (recalling 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 smothered with 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 is foiled as Michael is pulled away by Harrison, and Andrew Hagen assuming his uncle’s seat). A nun 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”), grabs the politician’s glasses, and tears his neck open. The imagery of glasses and blood implies 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. This nefarious and corrupted official who “played for time” is expunged from the lofty heights of his order to the deepest infernal circle, consuming the treacherous. 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 by cannolis. His last performance was attended by his goddaughter and murderer, Connie, who spectated him through her opera glasses more than she did the action on stage. The Corleone ritual of death meets thunderous applause.
These satanic images show how virtue is 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. The world, as it is, is surrounded by images of Christ’s compassion but death is always there like a shadow in its wake. It recalls the suffering and exposure of St. Sebastian. For Michael to live up to the content of his prayers, he must endure similar exposure, passion, and suffering, modeled by the icons in church and on stage.
The opera ends. 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, or between Vincent and Zasa earlier. Another voice cuts through the air. 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 Hamlet’s “The Mouse Trap,” art is personal—and mortal. 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. “Doing what?” Before she can fully confront him (Anthony is also trying to talk – notice how everyone is talking but no one’s communicating), 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. In the skirmish, Mosca is unexpectedly grabbed by the other priests (a kind of funny joke, being that the Vatican is connected with violence in this story – something Mosca didn‘t take into account), and summarily shot by Vincent. 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 crimson stain growing on her chest. She looks at her father, confused. “Dad?" And drops like a doll – or the puppet from The Baroness of Carini (remember how she has been essentially the Corleone Foundation’s puppet all along). In a trilogy that is ostensibly about fathers and sons and brothers, there is the notable bookend of fathers and daughters.
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 – makes the tragedy work. After Michael slumps away from the corpse and Kay scoops up the 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, Sofia Coppola—or Francis Coppola’s puppetry—deserves adulation. It’s Sofia’s lack of experience, her innocence, authentic in its awkwardness, that makes the tragedy extraordinary, something that would be buffered by a more seasoned performer.
In close-up, Pacino’s hands cover his face, the watch on his left hand indicating that there never was, after all, enough time. He jolts back, his mouth wide open and hands moving slowly away. The music steals away his scream. We see the Corleones looking at this steel, reptilian figure, now, finally, in public light, torn open. Kay and Vincent are startled out of their grief, as if the fourth wall was falling. Spittle is on Michael's chin as he wavers back and forth in a kind of willed rigor mortis, his wind going in and out. With one last inhalation, his scream finds a voice, suiting the true meaning of his life. "When they hear the name Corleone, they're going to think of a voice." He falls forward, then back once again, drifting 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 is off.
Coppola leaves the mourners on the carpet, police officers ascending the steps as the sound of tapping glasses – suggesting 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 studio filmmaking.
Michael may be the richest landlord on earth, holding all the strings but hollow inside. 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 vision and crippling foot problems, with nothing but memories to accompany a deserved loneliness. He puts on sunglasses as if to reassume his mask, a gesture precipitated in an earlier scene when Anthony's folk song kindled memories of Apollonia, the grief for whom has similarly been buried away for decades, perniciously eating him inside out. An orange falls from his hand. He slumps over, and dies alone.
The similarities overtly point to Lear, and the way Michael earlier cries over Mary’s corpse is reminiscent of Lear mourning Cordelia. “Break, heart, I prithee break,” Lear says. 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 grief. The same holds true for Lord Hidetora in Ran, whose son Saburo is killed 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?”
Unlike Lear or Hidetora, Michael Corleone is invincible. Mosca, the best assassin in Sicily, shot him point blank, and he barely registers the wound. If only he could die. His silent scream is his body trying to extinguish itself, to "O, O, O, O!" No. The gods decree that he endure this for years, possibly decades. His ending is more horrible than his literary and cinematic counterparts, the melancholic irony brilliantly concluding Coppola’s tragedy. 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, whimpering and fading away instead of murder’s swift escape. He has been “playing for time,” as is the custom for us all, locked in his bones to “contemplate eternity.”
His final moments recall his father‘s death. Both men are outside and in the sun, oranges in their hands. One is completely at peace with his life (“I don’t apologize”), laughing with his grandson and running around before collapsing in a fecund garden; the other is alone and full of regret, inert and crippled, shielding his sore eyes, crumpling to dry sand.
Originally written summer 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
After I reblogged these Godfather essays in 2012, a reader named Rayfield A. Waller perfectly encapsulated the virtues of Part III in a comment. I've copied and posted a bulk of Waller's valuable commentary below:
"The Godfather films...are towering art works that encapsulate our national history as well as all our family histories. I am not one to deride Godfather III nor give it left-handed compliments. It is not flawed, it is deliberately deracinated, a work of art that comes at the end of a triptych that refuses to pretend that the classicism and the grace of the first two—and of a former America, of our own families, and our own lives—is still real, or still possible....The virtues, the powers, and the meaning of youth slip beyond our grasp. How then do we reappraise ourselves, and find a finishing purpose? An art work that finishes a movement must summarize, must end a life.
"The great, classical tragedy of The Godfather films (‘classical’ in the sense of Homer, of Aeschylus, and Sophocles) is that everything is paid for. No violent or cruel actions committed for personal gain escape the fate of such—the guilty pay, and the innocent who are too close to the guilty, are sacrificed. Godfather III drives home the point that the corruption of a single little boy who sits singing a folk song all alone on Ellis Island is the whole point: he rises to the challenge of the malignant world around him that he can only survive by meeting the corruption, then must do the same to keep his family but must pass the corruption on to his family, and they in turn must nurture it.... Finally, the family journeys to the source of the corruption (home to Europe, the cradle of it...[The] sheer audacity of setting the film’s last forty minutes’ ugly business of assassination and of espionage against the backdrop of a great one-act opera is brilliant, and is completely consistent with the project of the film—thematizing the ancient nature of evil, the dark malignancy of old Europe, the infectious quality of violence, and the inevitability of revenge, of retribution, and of punishment. Thus, the final word uttered by Michael’s daughter when she is sacrificed for his sins. She utters the word as a question!— “Dad?”...A question, not a shout, not an exclamation, not a curse or a moan, but a single question, using the name of his love for her: "Dad." His collapse, his silent cry (covered at first by the soaring chorus of the opera’s music now coming from the film’s soundtrack) becomes a bottomless, horrifying, wail of ancient pain and suffering."
The Godfather Project: