Why, at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, does Michael Corleone die alone?
He was the longtime head of a crime family, but that isn’t a sufficient reason. In the third film, at the catafalque of the Sicilian Don Tommasino, Michael recognizes that his protector had been “loved.” (He, Michael, only inspires fear.) As the Jesuit film critic Richard Blake notes, Michael’s father Vito, the first Don Corleone, dies “amid the sacramental signs of life,” in a garden. Not every mobster dies alone.
Is it because Michael has left behind Old World tradition — la via vecchia (see Jon Lewis’s book) — for a colder, steelier, lonelier Americanized organized crime? But Coppola never lets us romanticize la via vecchia. As Paul Graham points out, when Vito Corleone arranges for the murder of the recalcitrant movie producer Jack Woltz’s horse, we see the severed head of the animal in Woltz’s bloody bed for no less than six seconds; we sense “the very essence of deep, primal fear.” Vito Corleone will also plot with Michael as consigliere to execute the murders of the heads of the five families that end the first Godfather film.
Further, in the sequel’s telling of Vito’s rise to becoming the don, Vito himself is fascinated by the violent power of Don Fanucci — an attraction noticeably stronger than his friend Genco’s lust for a girl. When Vito kills Fanucci, the violent murder takes place during a religious festival, foreshadowing his son’s blasphemous murders. Vito Corleone’s contemporaries are no better than Michael. Hyman Roth treats Michael as a “son” but tries to assassinate him.
There was repeated bloodshed in the old days. Vito’s capo tells Michael about an imminent mob war, “This thing’s gotta happen every five years or so—ten years—helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one.” There was never a romantic age of the Mafia.
It isn’t the case, either, that Michael exchanged his love for his family for rugged individualism. The only “wealth,” he says, at the third film’s beginning, is family. Michael even moves to incorporate the volatile Vincent Mancini into the family after he must reluctantly let his biological son go. (Michael may also still be haunted by the ghost of his deceased “male child” in Godfather II.)
What dooms Michael is idealism. Michael wants legitimacy, while Vito could never entertain the possibility. In the first film, politicians will not attend the wedding of Vito’s daughter. By the second film, a Senator attends Michael’s son’s first Communion, if ungraciously. By the third film, the character who utters anti-Italian slurs is a crackpot. Vito will not apologize for his life. But he never wanted it for his son, Michael, who was supposed to be “Governor Corleone. Senator Corleone.” Michael never suggests that his own son avoid the family business. He figures that out for himself. Michael, unlike Vito, can imagine the family business being different from what it is. (See Hannah Mäkelä’s essay.)
After all, Michael had proposed to the decidedly non-Italian Kay, suggesting that his father was no different from any powerful man, promising that the Corleones would be legitimate within five years. In The Godfather II, Kay reminds him that it has been seven years. Michael can only respond that he is “trying.” In The Godfather III, Michael seems to have finally succeeded.
“Your whole past history, and the history of your family, will be washed away,” the corrupt Archbishop Gilday promises.
The higher Michael goes, however, the “crookeder” it gets. Nobody else seeks legitimacy — even the old dons at the ill-fated Atlantic City meeting only want the appearance of legitimacy. By then, Kay can no longer be fooled.
“It never ends,” she laments as Michael is pulled away for yet another round of bloodshed.
Michael’s idealism could already be seen at The Godfather II’s end. He has enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor. His temperamental brother Sonny declares that a Corleone shouldn’t risk his life for “strangers.” Michael is left alone at the table. Ironically, this idealistic decision to go to war, to reconcile honor and patriotism, eased Michael’s path to criminality. Would a non-soldier have been as capable of singlehandedly killing Solozzo and McCloskey?
It might seem perverse to blame idealism for Michael’s lonely death. But Michael’s idealism prevents him from seeing the mob “business” for what it is and must always be. For him, it is always potentially legitimate, respectable, and American.
On the other hand, earlier gangsters had maintained a necessary distinction between what was “business” and what was “personal.” Otherwise, the concern with honor and respect in personal life would blend with the criminality of business, causing too much bad blood to build up too soon. (Even the beseeching undertaker, Bonasera, is obsessed with “honor” — his injured daughter had preserved her “honor,” and he wants excessive vengeance.) Sonny, for instance, had mixed what is “personal” with what is “business,” immediately causing “business” to suffer. And the criminality of “business” is never brought back home to “personal” life — Vito, we are told, never discussed business at the dinner table.
This distinction between what is “personal” and “business” is hard to maintain. Hyman Roth claimed that’d he let go of the murder of Moe Green because “this is the business we’ve chosen.” He hasn’t.
As for Michael, he tells Senator Geary that their business does not apply to “his family,” but the story of his rise comes as the protective distinctions between what is “personal” and what is “business” collapse. Michael’s “business” decisions are affected by his “personal” need for revenge; he pursues his enemies beyond what is necessary or even seemly. Michael kills the childlike Fredo.
But his “personal” sphere has also been contaminated by the his “business.” When Michael futilely attempts to get Kay to stay with him, he uses the commanding, assured, threatening tone of a Don. Later, Michael, the son of a man who never brought “business” back home, cannot reconcile with Kay because their meal is interrupted by “business.”
As Balázs Szigeti writes, comparing Macbeth and Michael Corleone, Michael is trying to compose his own narrative of legitimacy, a “work of art.” He engineers respectability, even papal orders. He places his daughter at the head of a foundation that proclaims his late father to have been a friend to humanity. He may become another “Rockefeller.” But, as Kay recognizes, the papal orders are a mere “disguise.” As the saintly Cardinal Lamberto, an exponent of the sacrament of reconciliation, tells Michael, “You will not change.”
He can’t. He wants to. When Michael betrays his heartfelt promise to God to seize on redemption should grace be offered, the abandonment is shocking but is an attempt to violently save the Holy Father — yet another attempt to reconcile Mafia life with higher purpose.
Why can’t Michael redeem the family, the family business, and himself? Michael’s story, like all of our sin, is bound up with many stories. The stories are about the force of honor inexorably leading to violence. Throughout the series, the violence of Sicily is present. In the first film, Michael asks about the absence of men in the village of Corleone; his bodyguard responds, “They’re dead from vendettas.” In the third film, Michael and Kay watch a puppet play about a father assaulting his daughter for violated honor. When Kay asks Michael why he still loves the bloodstained island, he answers, again idealistically, that Sicilians suffer, but “They still expect good, rather than bad, will happen to them.”
Here, it never does. The opera that ends the series, Cavalleria Rusticana, climaxes in a fatal duel for honor, foreshadowing a “real” death.
This dark fictive background affects the main plot of the Godfather series. When the character played by Michael’s son in Cavalleria Rusticana bites another’s ear as the challenge to a fight, it reminds the viewer that Vincent had likewise drawn blood from Joey Zasa’s ear. That hearkens back to Sonny biting Carlo in the first film.
Michael, already having to redeem the legacy of his father (“I swore I would never be a man like him — but I loved him”) has no ready model of redemption, only violence that may or may not be restrained.
To be sure, The Godfather trilogy is awash in religious symbolism, but its exotic mystery (the service for Michael in The Godfather III is still in Latin) means that Christian ritual serves as little more than ironic commentary. Vito kills Don Fanucci amid a religious festival, himself draped in white; when his grandson kills Joey Zasa in a festival, one of the penitents is an assassin and the statue of the Blessed Mother actually falls. The famous scene ending the first film when Michael makes baptismal vows as his enemies are murdered serves only to highlight Michael’s evil.
We might find ourselves fascinated by Michael’s apparent supernatural power, as Phoebe Poon says, “in orchestrating murder in five different locations at once while assuming the responsibility of godfather over his domestic family,” but this is a horrified fascination. Nobody is converted by the films’ rituals. There is a gap between holy belief and action. Michael can barely make the responses in the service that begins the last film.
And, so, when Michael Corleone dies, he dies alone.
But could Michael have been redeemed? While one can always say “no” to God, there are three examples in The Godfather III of men held apart from violence. There is Michael’s son, Anthony, who has rejected his father’s way of life. There is Tom Hagen’s son, the priest Andrew, who Michael says has the “true faith.” (When the WASP lawyer Harrison clumsily asks Andrew to pass on Vatican gossip, Michael stops him.) There’s the saintly Cardinal Lamberto.
The first two — Anthony and Andrew — are forgettable characters. And Cardinal Lamberto, after being elected pope, immediately and inevitably dies. To be redeemed, Michael would have to die completely to the power and importance of his old life.
This can be part of redemption. In his book on the resurrection, Rowan Williams shares a chilling story from Ulster. A teenage boy was ordered by a para-military group to “perform a killing locally, or else face ‘execution’ himself.” The boy tragically committed suicide. Williams calls the death “an act of refusal” of “the appalling confines of the situation.”
“And the one who has thus ‘turned’ in refusal from a trapped world may indeed be turning to hear his or her name spoken by the Lord.”
Michael dies alone because, always the good son who would be “with” his father, kissing his hands, he is incapable of such refusal. He has the money to walk away from his “trapped world.” Alas, Michael, an idealist seeking legitimacy, tries to save it. Some things cannot be saved.
The featured image is a piece of street art (2010) from Chewstroke. It is licensed under Creative Commons.