This essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


What is it like, in 2021, to watch a movie like The Godfather, a film that practically defines the term classic? It and its sequels are referenced and quoted with the confident assumption of familiarity that once attended the Bible; the gangsters in The Sopranos not only quote it but imagine themselves as characters in it, even as the series itself aims to dismantle the myth in which they believe. After all that, can one still experience the thing itself? Or is it, like an icon, so begrimed by decades of candle smoke and kisses that the image can no longer be discerned beneath the residue of devotion?

It’s a question that any classic poses, and the standard answer is a double one. No, we cannot see it with the eyes of its first viewers—but we can see it with our own eyes, and perhaps make it new thereby. Indeed, what makes something a classic is precisely its ability to transform and transcend in this way, becoming timeless not by being changeless but by a protean ability to remain itself even as we change it.

The question lands with particular salience, though, when the artist himself will not let the work go and be seen for what it is, but hangs around the frame fretfully, palette and brush in hand, daubing and touching up and instructing us: Look here! No, look here! Francis Ford Coppola is one such artist. Through books like The Godfather Notebook and new cuts like 1977’s The Godfather Saga—a chronological splice of the first two films—and of course the Godfather sequels themselves, Coppola has not only encouraged the excavation and transformation of his work but has led that process. There is always a pecuniary aspect to these decisions (earnings from The Godfather Saga helped fund the completion of Apocalypse Now, for example), but there’s something more behind the impulse to fuss and worry old work, some sense that the work still isn’t done, still isn’t properly understood.

Coppola is still at it. The release last winter of a new cut of the third Godfather movie, retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, presents an opportune time to revisit the entire saga and try to see it afresh. Fresh it proved to be. As I moved through the series, I was increasingly surprised by what I was seeing. The Godfather constructed a myth that subsequent treatments of the genre—most notably The Sopranos—have labored to analyze and dismantle, revealing the hollowness of character beneath the mythic surface. What I learned from my revisiting was that this critique was embedded in the original myth all along.

An Angry Man

The original Godfather film wears its tragic ambitions on its sleeve, and it understands that ambition in classic terms. Its setting is a mafia crime family, but it could just as easily be a medieval kingdom. Don Vito Corleone is a feudal lord at the top of a hierarchy of reciprocal responsibility, and at the head of a society conceived of as a family. This archaic order is contrasted from the opening scene with a surrounding culture that plays by a more modern set of rules, a Gesellschaft as against the mafia’s Gemeinschaft (as Sam Francis characterized the difference in a notable essay on the book and films). From the start, we are attuned to the possibility of a crisis of succession, inasmuch as the youngest and most-beloved son, Michael, has explicitly rejected the family’s ethos in favor of the surrounding culture. This, then, will be the story of the passing of an old order, and the young Michael will either kill it, and his identity, by leaving, or stay to save it, and die in the attempt.

We all know which way he chose. The decision that fixes Michael’s fate over three films, and that establishes him as the hero of the first film, comes unbidden. Thanks to a mistake by his older brother, Don Corleone has been attacked by assassins and barely clings to life; his eldest boy, Sonny, now leading the family, cannot see a way to achieve the necessary revenge, and his adopted son, Tom, advises peace on humiliating terms. At this juncture, Michael spontaneously offers to take up the mantle. He will avenge his father’s death and give his family a fighting chance, sacrificing his own opportunity of escape from their life.

The moment bonds us to Michael. We feel him will himself to manhood—and what it will cost him to do so. We cannot help but want him to find some kind of hope, some kind of peace, after making that sacrifice, and so we suffer as we should at a tragedy, as that fateful decision leads only to more suffering, more responsibility, and ultimately seats him in his father’s place.

I remembered all that from previous viewings. Here’s what I didn’t remember: how angry Michael is, and how poorly he expresses affection, right from the beginning and all the way through the film.

In the opening wedding sequence, Michael holds himself aloof from his family—understandably, as he has rejected them in joining the army, going to college, and refusing to be a part of the family business. But he holds himself aloof from his girlfriend, Kay, as well. She represents that separation from the family that he seeks, but he does not love her for that. Perhaps that is because, while he is breaking away, some part of him wants to be wooed back. Yet in that conference where he offers to kill his father’s would-be killer, Michael manifests a similar aloofness. Maybe that’s because he has made himself an outsider; but while he is condescended to by his older brother, it is transparent that his brother loves him. The converse is not so clear. Most startlingly, when he is in exile in Sicily and decides to marry a beautiful local girl, his courtship is not only formal and correct but downright chilly. If he looked for her to salve his grief, he is not giving her much of a chance—and then she is killed before her own joyous lightness has a chance to work whatever magic it might.

It’s not merely that the young star, Al Pacino, is husbanding his emotions. He is husbanding a very particular emotion: anger, which has nearly blotted out all the rest of his range of feeling. Indeed, the only time we truly see past that anger toward something like love and grief is when he is with his father. That is why he makes himself a sacrifice: because his father is the only person he truly loves, and so refusing to sacrifice himself for him would mean refusing the only love he has. Yet this is a sacrifice his father never wanted, as we see clearly on Marlon Brando’s face the moment he learns that Michael is the one who avenged him. It’s not just that Michael was supposed to be the family’s ticket to respectability—the future Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone that his father dreams of. It’s that he knows Michael was not made for this life, that his being cries out against it, and because the old don loves his son, he wanted to let him go.

That is the truth that Michael must suppress, lest he be consumed by anger as he moves after his father’s death to take full possession of his father’s power. But it consumes him nonetheless, which is why he wields that power in a distinctly different manner than his father ever did. Not in wiping out the heads of the five families; that’s a plan we see him working out with his father acting as his consigliere. Rather, there are two choices Michael makes at the end of the film that it is very hard to imagine Vito Corleone making quite the way Michael does.

The first of these is the murder of Carlo, Connie’s husband. Carlo is a traitor, responsible for Sonny’s death. He certainly had to be dealt with in some fashion, and it’s possible that Don Vito would also have seen death as the only remedy. But the hardness with which Michael not only dispatches him but responds to his blameless sister whom he widowed is something new and terrible in this family. The second is his decision to lie to Kay about that murder—a decision that makes Michael visibly angrier than we have ever seen him until now. Her question was predictable; Michael knows that she never wanted to be married to a mafia don (which is why I have often tried and failed to imagine a scene where Michael gets his father’s blessing for the match after they both know this is his destiny). Once posed, though, it forces him to face the fact that he will never, ever be able to trust his own wife, and therefore she will never be a solace to him.

Kay stands alone at the close of the film, as Michael receives the obeisance of his vassals. But it is Michael who has cut himself off, and already lost his family, long before the moment in the second film when his mother tells him this is impossible.

Part II Raises Questions

What is the sequel to a tragedy? If it’s Aeschylus, Orestes continues the cycle of revenge by killing his mother and is pursued by the Furies; if it’s Sophocles, Oedipus flees his home and curses the sons who are battling for his throne before dying; in either case, the already broken family tears itself to pieces. That’s certainly the model that the Godfather films follow: the second film begins with Michael insulting and condescending to the sister whose husband he killed, and ends with him murdering his own brother. In between, he plays cat-and-mouse with a surrogate father figure who promises him his kingdom even as he plans to kill him.

The first thing that struck me, watching the second film, was how loose and baggy it is compared to the original. I don’t just mean that in terms of form or pacing—there’s nothing wrong with a film that is contemplative or meandering—but in terms of clarity of storytelling. I was continually confronted by moments that, whatever their visceral power, didn’t make obvious sense upon reflection. For example, how was the attempted assassination that springs the plot actually planned and executed? We know that Fredo betrayed his brother, but what could he have done for Johnny Ola that would enable his agents not only to infiltrate the Corleone compound but even arrange for the drapes to be open at the proper time, and all without cluing Fredo in to the fact that they were planning a hit? Other plot points are left deliberately fuzzy. For example, what exactly happened with the senator in the brothel—did he kill the prostitute (as he clearly believes he may have done), or was he framed by Tom Hagen, who is then responsible for her death? Our willingness to side emotionally with Tom depends on that ambiguity, but it’s of a piece with the film’s preference for atmospherics over clarity. Some plot holes are simply too glaring to ignore, though; for example, how on earth did Kay get an illegal abortion while under effective house arrest in the Corleone compound?

I bring up these questions not to be pedantic; I’m sure any number of enthusiasts could explain them all away, potentially to my satisfaction, and besides, hole hunting is an activity one only engages in when the immersive mystery of cinema has lifted. My point, rather, is to highlight how different this feeling was from the original movie, where every action and reaction is crystal clear, every plan readily comprehensible. We may not know how they got the horse’s head into Jack Woltz’s bed, but we know the Corleones did it and we know precisely why. Where the original’s lucidity helped anchor its tragic mythology, the sequel’s preference for atmospherics makes it almost dreamlike, akin to other Coppola films like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, more invested in emotional logic than in causality.

If The Godfather: Part II is a kind of dream, though, then Michael is the dreamer—and this marks another change from the original film. I have described Michael as the hero of The Godfather, but until Michael takes up the gun it feels much more like an ensemble piece, and Don Vito plays as vital a role throughout as Michael does. It might seem, at first glance, that Part II is even more of a doubled tale, since the story of Don Vito’s rise is told in flashbacks. But that is not how it struck me on rewatching. Indeed, I came away convinced that those flashbacks never tell Don Vito’s true story at all.

Consider this: how many people does Vito Corleone kill in his rise to mafia don? Only two, Don Fanucci and Don Francesco, both villains. The first holds sway over the tenement neighborhood of Little Italy, where Vito lives in Manhattan, squeezing the struggling people for protection money and, incidentally, putting Vito out of his legitimate job to make room for his own nephew. The second ruthlessly dominates his corner of Sicily, having murdered Vito’s father, brother, and mother, and driven Vito into exile. They are personal nemeses, then, but also malignant and oppressive rulers we are happy to see killed. By killing them, Vito gets to replace them and their mode of rule, and becomes the good don, who protects the widow and the orphan and punishes the wicked. Moreover, Vito Corleone’s public virtue is mirrored in his private life. He is humble and polite, never showing anger. His appetites are modest and simple. He is not only faithful but professes no interest in even looking at the beautiful woman that his friend has fallen for. He manifestly loves and cares for his wife and dotes on his children, showing signs of fear only when they are ill.

Is this a plausible portrait of a future crime boss? Even granting the considerable license implicit in characterizing a mafia don as a kind of political and business leader, it strains credulity beyond the limit. It is in fact a thoroughly and comprehensively sentimentalized account of an immigrant’s rise from penury to greatness, as has been told to countless children and grandchildren born to such immigrants in the golden land that made their rises possible. (Sam Francis may see the films as glorifying old country virtues, but Sicily left no scope for a man of spirit and character like Vito Corleone to become anything but a corpse like his brother.) And I would contend that this is in fact what we are seeing in flashback: not Vito’s story as it was, but Vito’s story as Michael learned it, from his mother, from his older brother, from Clemenza and Tessio and the rest of the old guard as they stirred pots of marinara. This is the legend of Vito Corleone, polished to an oppressive shine, and it is what Michael has been sacrificing for and failing to live up to all through the film.

In the shadow of Michael’s idolized father, Hyman Roth, his father’s old associate, partner, and rival, can become the repository of all that Michael has repressed about his father’s history. From the story we see that Michael’s father rose in power through courage and generosity, protecting the weak and declining even to enter businesses that might damage the community. Roth, by contrast, is all about the bottom line, even disclaiming (though we may doubt his honesty in this) any concern for who ordered the murder of his beloved friend Moe Greene, because “it had nothing to do with business.” And yet the childless Roth, by way of enticing Michael to invest in his Cuban venture, absurdly promises to make Michael Corleone his heir, a proposal precisely as plausible as Macbeth offering to adopt Fleance. Michael—and we, since we are living Michael’s dream life as long as we are watching—can abhor Roth even as he emulates him in cunning, cruelty, and solitude.

A film never terribly interested in plot finally dispatches Roth without much trouble: a hired gunman simply walks up and shoots before being shot in turn. (The contrast with the painstaking planning required to kill Sollozzo in the original film is striking.) But the most important killing of the entire series remains: the murder of Fredo. Far from an enemy that Michael has to wipe out, Fredo is merely the weakness of his own flesh, a branch of the family that cannot bear weight. Michael kills him not out of calculation but out of contempt, that anyone so weak should be allowed to live when he must be so strong. But all he can think about in his final moments is his own loss; all he can feel is self-pity.

That sentimentality that courses through the blue veins of The Godfather: Part II finally bleeds out red in the final chapter of the saga.

A Sequel Too Far?

I never saw the original theatrical cut of The Godfather: Part III because I had no desire to sully my memories of the first two films by watching a belated addition to the canon that was being widely panned. So watching The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, being a first encounter, was a different experience from rewatching the other two films. I suspect my first impressions of it were congruent with those of its first viewers in two important ways: the immediate awareness that this was a very different filmmaker and a very different star after such a lapse of time. And yet what emerged over time was a realization that there was far more continuity than first appeared.

As an older actor, Pacino had grown looser, less inwardly intense but more outwardly extravagant. As a director, Coppola had grown more sumptuous and less concerned to anchor his conceits in any semblance of the real; this is a world where helicopters can machine-gun banquet halls and priests can be tossed down picturesque stairwells in the Vatican itself; it’s like something Jacobean. Some have described the result as operatic, with emotions painted in bold swatches of primary colors, but the effect on me was somewhat different. Opera takes possession of you. I was not possessed by this film; if anything, I felt farther away than ever, as though the performers were acting from behind a screen.

Partway through the film, when Michael was showing Kay the sacred sites of his family’s history in Sicily—telling her the story that he had been told as a child, that we were told through his mind’s eye in Part II—I suddenly felt that I understood what was going on. This is Michael’s movie. This is the way he would want himself presented to us, and this is how he sees his world late in life. It’s not that we are farther away from him; it’s that we are no longer spying on him through the camera lens as he performs the part of patriarch for his disintegrating family. Now he is on stage, performing for us, like his father performed for his grandson in his last scene in the original film, turning himself into a comical monster to chase the little boy around the garden before collapsing in a death that the youngster thinks is still part of the game. That’s how he wants us to think of him now, as a lovable monster, so that we will pity him—which he mistakes for absolution.

Absolution is what he seeks within the frame of the film as well. It’s what he seeks publicly by going into business with the Vatican (though it is very typical that he seeks it by way of conquest through a dubious business deal that bails out the corrupt Vatican bank). It’s what he seeks personally from Kay; their interlude in Sicily is Michael’s first real courtship of her, the first sign that he bears her any real affection, or seeks affection from her; but what he really wants is for her to say: now that I finally understand you, I forgive you. And it’s what he wants from Cardinal Lamberto, who becomes the film’s short-lived Pope John Paul I, and whom Michael latches onto as the good father. The cardinal does, in fact, absolve Michael after hearing his confession, including his first acknowledgement not only that he murdered Fredo but that he had no reason for doing so but his own anger. But the cardinal also says he deserves the greatest punishment—and that punishment is what Michael (or Coppola) hope will move us to pity and forgiveness in turn. The accidental death of Michael’s daughter by a bullet intended for him is, his operatic screams tell us, the final and deepest tragedy.

I remained unconvinced. Instead, the straightforward sentimentality of this transparent plea for sympathy reinforced my impression of self-pity in his character that I gleaned from the second film, which on the surface seems so cold. In that sense, I am grateful for the third film, despite its flaws, for helping me to understand Michael in ways that I might not have without it—or, perhaps better, for showing me that the author understood him as well. Perhaps that’s why he subtitled the recut of the final film The Death of Michael Corleone and then edited it so that he is still living at the curtain. It must be another death he’s speaking of, not of the body, but of the soul.

Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.

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