Of the themes I’m currently most interested in is the concept of the night of crisis or, the dark night of the soul. This is a motif that is extremely common across literature and mythology. This is an incident or event that subsequently leads a character on the path to greater realisation or the wholeness of being. When I was a child one of my favourite works was The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and I also loved the film which incidentally Ende hated because he believed it deviated too far from his original novel and he attempted to sue the producers. Still, both the novel and the movie both address the night of crisis, and nonetheless, Ende said this:
“This is a story of a boy who loses his whole interior world, which basically is his mythical world, during the night of a crisis – a life crisis. It just disappears into nowhere and he has to face this nothing, this nowhere and that is what we Europeans, too, have to do. We have gotten rid of all the values we once had and now we have to face that, we have to bravely jump in order to be able to create something again, to create a new (…) set of values”
This is commonly occurring in literature, in everything from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which subsequent entries will look at. Today however, is about what happens when the night of crisis doesn’t manifest itself in the atypically heroic way.
I regularly bring this up: one of my favourite movies is actually The Godfather III which I think for its faults which I don’t actually deny, is the most feasibly brilliant conclusion to The Godfather saga. I’ve mentioned this in at least one previous entry, and I believe have alluded to the fact on a number of other occasions. Michael’s journey in the series is the antithesis of most biblical, mythical and literary transformations, where a person will go through the dark night of the soul and reach a higher level of being. Michael’s journey does nonetheless however, lead him to the true nature of his becoming. In the first scene he is a soldier, a war hero in uniform. A chain of events will lead him to lose his uniform and assume his true face. The character of Kay, who he shares this first scene with is pivotal to understanding his becoming. Michael discusses his family, most notably his father and discusses the nature of power.
Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed!
Michael Corleone: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
We will learn it is Michael who is being naive.
Later, his father will tell him:
Vito Corleone: I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life – I don’t apologize – to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots. I don’t apologize – that’s my life – but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone. Well, it wasn’t enough time, Michael. It wasn’t enough time.
Michael: We’ll get there, pop. We’ll get there.
Despite Michael’s remarks at the beginning of the movie – and this will be a theme throughout the three movies – this is what is at the heart of his downfall: Michael strives for what he considers legitimacy. However, his notion of legitimacy is indubitably flawed by his failure to recognise the true nature of himself and he is fundamentally unable to grasp the gaping flaw in his own value system. Unless he is able to recognise this: that legitimacy and murder in his World will always go hand and hand, that the two notions in his mind are inextricably linked. Thus, Vito is actually always fully aware of Michael’s true nature, Michael is unable to recognise it. Vito ultimately succeeds as a result of his own self-acceptance and is able to die happily in his garden with his grandchild and family close by.
The character of Kay actually underpins Michael’s legacy. From the introduction of the two characters in the wedding scene, where Michael is fairly unremarkable, even appearing amiable and genuine. He does seem to have a genuine level of affection for her. This carries on up until the double-murder in the restaurant which is Michael’s unwitting realisation of his true nature and identity. Again, where Michael seemingly lacks self-awareness, Vito is at all times acutely aware of Michael’s true nature. Vito doesn’t want Michael to be involved in the family business. He had hoped he would become a senator. This has nothing to do with Michael not possessing a disposition or character entirely conducive to the family business. On the contrary. Again, at the very start of the movie, Michael unwittingly scolds Kay without any sense of irony for her naivety when she tells him senators don’t have people killed. Not to mention the Corleone family’s dubious links with political figures which are mentioned on numerous occasions.
The scene in Sicily where Michael is thunderstruck by the beautiful local girl is essential in order to understand the crux of his transformation. Apollonia is the shadow of his own Sicillian mother, who is quiet, clement and doesn’t involve herself in her husbands affairs. Similarly, Apollonia plays a quiet, unassuming and passive role in the background, such as when they are visited by the Sicillian don. She has no interest in involving herself in Michael’s affairs. Her virtue is in being a loving homely wife. After her death Michael returns to America.
Michael’s reaction to seeing Kay upon his return, couldn’t be more different. Kay represents Michael’s idealised image of the woman he thinks he should be with as an Italian-American immigrant living the American dream. As a person, this lack of realisation and acceptance towards his own his true-identity, and his relationship with Kay which can be read as actually using her to preserve his self-styled image as a family-man, and man of good-conscience is his ultimate pitfall. It’s also the thing which demonstrates his biggest contrast from own father. Vito, for all of his own failings within his business is loved, respected and actually admired as a human-being. Through his wife, Vito can acutely put distance between his family and his family. Although the waters may appear muddy at times, there is a clear distinction and his wife plays a pivotal role in this through her passive disinterest in the affairs of his business. For Michael, there’s no distinction, because Kay is not a woman of the same inclination, disposition or nature as his mother or Apollonia. When he has Carlo murdered, the lines between the interests of his two families are deeply and irrevocably blurred, leading towards Kay’s realisation in the closing moments.
On top of this in terms of relationships: his father quite obviously values and appreciates his wife. Michael can’t. After Apollonia and his return to America he is simply lying to himself, about who and what kind of man he is. As a result of his sense of self being completely corrupt through his own lack of self-awareness, as are his values.
This carries on into the third movie, and as an aside, in terms of contextually, Copolla’s ill fated decision to cast his own daughter as the naive Mary was beautifully meta. As Wilde said, ‘Life imitates art, far more than art imitates life.’
My favourite scene in Godfather III is Michael’s conversation with Cardinal Lamberto in the ornate garden:
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.
Michael’s diabetic affliction leads to his confession to Cardinal Lamberto.
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.”
Later, 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.
The Christ that Lamberto refers to is of course a metaphorical one. It is recognition and acceptance of the self. Only after acceptance has taken place, can we change and rise anew. This is the metaphor of the crucifixion. It is only when Jesus recognises that God – the father – has forsaken him, at the point when he is at his most mortal and vulnerable can he transcend to the divine essence. This is the scene which seals Michael’s fate. After this scene, Michael has to die. He falls, in Sicily, quite literally thousands of miles from America and the American dream he sought, but in line with the archaic Sicilian values he would not recognise within himself, with no family in sight. Broken and withered. Without recognition of his true self, he won’t be missed.
I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.