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Michael Corleone's Descent in The Godfather Saga
At the very end of The Godfather: Part II (1974), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sits by himself on the lawn of his large Lake Tahoe estate. It is late fall, and the low sun sheds no warmth and color on his face or the leaf-blown landscape behind. He is bundled in a bulky black sweater, as if trying to shelter himself from the cold. The camera slowly approaches to the point where his face, the right half shadowed in darkness, fills nearly half of the widescreen. His hand is at his chin, an intent, almost quizzical expression on his face. The scene in effect continues the previous one, in which Michael, alone in his dark cavernous house, sits slumped in a large chair while he recalls in lengthy detail the moment when he, then but a college student, announced his intention to depart from the violent paths of his notorious crime family. The implication is that Michael now wonders, given the Cain he has become, at the strange route that has brought him from selflessness - enlisting in the Marines in World War II - to this dire fate of venomous brutality and complete personal isolation. And well he might, for in this transit, to his surprise and the viewer's, Michael has become darkness itself (to underscore this fact, most of Michael's story in Part II is filmed in very low light and shadow). Indeed, it is not too much to say that Michael has become, as the details of the shot make painfully clear, evil incarnate: predatory, ruthless, and completely stone-hearted. As such, this exquisitely wrought closing view of Michael seems a fitting closing to his story, and it comprises what is at once the scariest and saddest scene in a generation of American film that is noted for its tragic realism. (Usually "scary" and "sad" do not go together in the movies.)
The scary essence of this scene derives from the crime Michael has commanded. Only a few hundred yards from where Michael stands at a window, his older brother, Fredo (John Cazale), while fishing and reciting the Hail Mary (for luck), has taken a bullet in the back of his head from Al Neri (Richard Bright), his present fishing companion and Michael's loyal henchman. Clearly, Fredo has not died by Michael's own hand, as Abel did by Cain's; but insofar as Michael has decreed the execution, he has become as much the murderer as if he had actually pulled the trigger himself. Indeed, he has become the full-blown moral horror his estranged wife has come to "dread," as Kay (Diane Keaton) will tell him years later. Michael has here repeated the primal arch-crime, brother killing brother, and he has done so - much as the first Cain did - out of rank pride and revenge. For all his intelligence, power, wealth, and aplomb, Michael is still at heart a fratricide and, worse still, a serial killer, as the first two Godfather films make clear. Debonair, well-dressed, articulate, and remarkably successful, he is a far cry from his father's enforcer, the barely verbal Luca Brazzi (Lenny Montana); but he is a serial killer nonetheless. Simply put, in the words of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Corleone has become a "monster," lost and "damned" in a "hell he [has] created for himself."
With this abomination also comes deep sadness, even lament, for the terrible place to which the once-idealistic Michael has come. In this final murderous deed, all the ambiguity about Michael's moral status and motives, which was murky for some in the original Godfather, disappears. And with this closing shot, etched in light and shadow, director Coppola evokes Michael's great inner wreckage of wrenching isolation and crushing guilt. The moment of his greatest power and triumph, when he has vanquished all his enemies, is also the moment of his greatest desolation. After all, Michael has gone up against forces of an unbridled malevolence and has triumphed; ironically, he has done so by marshalling all of his own malevolence. By conventional American cultural standards, he has achieved unparalleled success: his foes are defeated, the "family business" is almost legitimate, and he is on the way to a vast financial empire (twenty years later, at the beginning of The Godfather: Part III, Michael is worth billions, which becomes obvious when he thinks little of giving one hundred million dollars to the Vatican). At the same time, though, he has lost everything, particularly his family, the very thing which he was supposedly laboring to protect and nourish. And he has become an even darker version of the family violence that he so steadfastly opposed in his youthful idealism. As Parts II and III of The Godfather make clear, the primary victims of Michael's ruthlessness are members of his own family, and then any others who might try to diminish Michael's sway in any way. Irony piles on irony, and Michael's history soon ripens into a contemporary version of the stone-hearted protagonists of nineteenth-century American storyteller Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose dark tales typically delineate the courses by which good turns to evil. Over and over again, these self-consumed idealists - whether Ethan Brand or Rappaccini - become monsters by virtue of a cloaked self-concern that destroys those around them. The horror is unspeakable, and as Michael himself seems to glimpse in his closing reverie, he himself is horror (a conclusion that forecasts Kurtz's recognition at the end of Coppola's Apocalypse Now ).
That is a difficult prospect to absorb, particularly coming from a preeminently American medium that invariably makes its handsome male protagonists into heroes. Once, at the very beginning of the saga, there was a young and idealistic Michael: handsome, urbane, and moral, a Dartmouth graduate who against family wishes enlisted in World War II and returned a much-decorated hero. From the start, he seems a worthy candidate for heroism, especially in his resolve to distance himself from the criminality of his Mafia family; and even after circumstances propel him into the family, he does accomplish much, particularly protecting his family from the designs of other mobsters who seem to lack any semblance of conscience. Young Michael does desperately want to break free from every aspect of the "family business," and particularly from the vision for his future cultivated by his mob-boss father, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Vito had hoped that Michael's brains and charisma would blaze the path toward both legal and social respectability for the large Corleone mob family. Oddly, Vito's own youthful self was not so different from the willful Michael's sense of himself.
Father and son both want something "different" for Michael, but he is determined to find his own future. This becomes apparent when, at the very beginning of the saga, he shows up at his sister Connie's wedding reception with a decidedly blonde girlfriend, Kay Adams (his eventual wife), a story-book incarnation of full-blown American WASPishness (as her name suggests, Kay is from old New England stock, and her father is a Protestant minister and scholar). It is in the midst of this very personal family gathering that Michael proclaims to Kay his own "differentness." Whatever his family is, he says, "it is not me." But not many years later, by the time of that closing shot at Lake Tahoe, the terrible, searing irony is that Michael, in trying to protect and save his family, has actually defeated them in that he has lost them all - either by death or estrangement. He has won the mortal stakes of mob control, but he has lost everything of value - everything - though he is loath to admit it to himself or anyone else.
The hard truth Michael reluctantly ponders at the end of Part II, one that greatly darkens and complicates Coppola's tale, is that he himself, just as in Part I, bears the blame for the destruction of his family. The first two Godfather films are, to put it in the starkest terms, stories of personal evil and damnation. No other terms begin to suggest the depth of Michael's culpability for the destruction that has followed in the wake of his supposed good intentions. For all his brains and passion, Michael himself is the cause of his losses; he has, by himself, thoroughly destroyed most of what he values in life. To be sure, he continually faces wily fearsome enemies, and he defeats them. But what he has lost - wife, children, sister, and only surviving brother - he has lost by himself, and he has lost it all in the midst of thinking that he was protecting the family.
The great achievement of The Godfather saga, Hawthornian in stature, is that screenwriters Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola track the complex process of self-deception by which Michael Corleone - in his conscience and soul - makes fatal errors of sympathy and judgment that decimate the family he desperately wants to save. And thus at the end of the second Godfather film, Michael sits utterly alone, Job-like, on the posh ash-heap of his own malice. The crucial difference between Job and Michael is that Michael's life has not become a shambles as a result of some wild divine wager in which he has been played a pawn for testing. Rather, Michael has made his own fate, done it all himself, executed his own conscience and soul - all in the name of what he deems to be virtue. How that magnitude of blindness and descent can actually transpire comprises the central riddle explored in The Godfather saga. Much of the great power of the long saga, almost nine hours of screen time, comes from this soul-haunting mystery, one of the world's great perplexities, what the Old Testament aptly calls "the mystery of iniquity." There are no tidy answers to the harrowing enigma of how evil comes about, though Michael's history is not uncommon. As scholars love to speculate, contemporary political history, from Nixon to Clinton, is replete with Michael Corleones among leaders and other public figures. The only certain conclusion in Michael's darkness is the cry, a desperate hope - first from the film's viewers, and then, in Part III, from Michael himself - for some exit from the encompassing darkness toward a dawning, however small, of light and redemption.
In the toughest irony of all, the second somber reality of Michael's experience is not that he has failed in some way, which happens often enough to everyone, but the terrible depth of failure to which he descends: despite his initial desire to reject the ruthless criminality his family represents, Michael ends up many times the villain his father ever was. From a high plane of moral aspiration, Michael descends to a nadir of ruthlessness and vengeance that contrasts with his father Vito's pragmatic but humane moral vision and practice, which the latter sustained even while running a large crime family. For all his love and regard for his father, especially his father's devotion to family, Michael does not finally "get it": he does not begin to understand the old man's expansive and complex embrace of mutuality, obligation, justice, respect, forgiveness, and honor as fundamental moral obligations. The Godfather renders Vito's approach to the enigmatic questions of power and human tragedy with exquisite narrative and cinematic force, just as it also charts the origins and first steps of Michael's fall. The Godfather: Part II alternately looks backward at what in Vito's past made him what he is and forward to Michael's attempt to legitimate his family by moving its enterprise and people to Nevada and into gambling. Through all of this, Michael deceives himself much as the flawed heroes of Greek tragedy did, and his blindness, akin to that of Oedipus, results in a malignity that elicits from Kay, many years after their divorce, that reaction of deep visceral "dread."
In The Godfather's searching exploration of Michael's personal embrace of evil and the toll it takes lies the saga's lasting brilliance and power. No American film, except perhaps for Citizen Kane, has offered such a compelling depth of insight into the abiding and complex mystery of how personal evil happens. So incisive and penetrating is the portrait of Michael Corleone delivered by Puzo, Coppola, and Pacino that the character joins a distinguished company of American literary evildoers, ranging from Hawthorne's malefactors and Melville's Ahab to Faulkner's Snopes family and Updike's Harry Angstrom: all are characters who have done evil and should have known better in the midst of doing what they thought was the good or the necessary. For all the sensation in The Godfather trilogy, a world dense with conflict and violence, the long saga is at its heart an old-fashioned morality tale that features the question of how the individual soul comes to embrace a darkness so devouring that it withers the heart and conscience. In that fatal journey lies its real and lasting terror.
The accomplishment of The Godfather is to show that evil is real, mysterious, deceptive, and lethal, despite the elaborate prettifying and apologizing that cloak its operations. Coppola does this in multiple ways, including especially his approach to cinematic violence, which he treats as a violation of the deepest purposes of human life and divine creation. The full horror of Michael's slow slide into an abyss comes clear only when we compare his history to his father's moral accomplishment, the very mode of living Michael initially rejects. Father and son inhabit the same darkly tangled world, as Michael belatedly realizes; but Michael's course through it departs sharply from his father's vision and practice. Ironically, and despite his fearsome reputation, Father Vito has in fact used his considerable power, albeit improbably, to achieve a humane communitarian ideal for a broad "family" that survives by interdependence within a relentlessly cruel and lawless world. As the close of Part I makes amply clear, son Michael has succumbed to the mobster's code of ruthless domination, an amoral code his father had warred against through his many years as a Mob boss. So thoroughly lost is Michael that, as the imagery of the film repeatedly emphasizes, he has come to embody and personify evil itself, its inmost destructive core, embracing power in order to dominate, coerce, and get even with any who would slight or oppose him - even his own brother.
"The Old Man"
In the beginning, so to speak, there was The Godfather (1972), one of the greatest of all American movies. The three-hour film tells the story of the Corleone mob family in the years immediately following World War II. Much confronts the family as the "business" of the underworld goes through dramatic change, specifically the "opportunities" to move into illicit drugs and Nevada gambling.
Excerpted from CATCHING LIGHT by ROY M. ANKER Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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