"In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Gun. The Godfather and Modernity" by Samuele F. S. Pardini
Samuele F. S. Pardini is Assistant Professor in the Department of World Languages and Culture at Elon University, where he serves as Coordinator of the American Studies Program and as Faculty in Residence of the Honors Program. He is the editor of The Devils Gets His Due. The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (2008). Email:
For Tom Ferraro
I want to talk about how the cultural trajectory of the Italian American gangster reveals the way in which the interplay of the development of capitalism and whiteness identifies 20th century modernity. This synchronic unfolding made the gangster trope coterminous with American culture since the early days of the past century, the time when the nascent film industry, then located in the city of New York and northern New Jersey where waves of Italian immigrants arrived and many of them settled in, started depicting the gangster as an Italian man in short films such as Wallace McCutcheon’s 1906 The Black Hand. The century long continuing success of gangster movies with an Italian American man as the main character, both originals and remakes and, especially in more recent years, TV series indicates how pervasive this identification is in the American psyche. Scarface and The Sopranos perfectly exemplify this phenomenon. Moreover, the international recognition of those movies and TV shows registers the transnational appeal of the Italian American gangster as well. If anything, the artistic and commercial longevity of the Italian American gangster is the sign of its constant level of contemporaneity in our modern culture. It signals its ability to navigate between and suture together disparate regions, geographical as well as cultural. Put it in another way, the Italian American gangster interlocks cultural formations, geographic areas, and social cleavages that would seem otherwise distant from, if not altogether alien to one another, suggesting the accuracy of what film critic Giorgio Bertellini calls the Italian American gangster’s “semantic plurality [that] is absent from the binary dynamics of whiteness” (94). The gangster helps us to gain a better understanding of the spectrum of the American racial mosaic and 20th century modernity.
Culturally speaking, the Italian American gangster accommodated the transition to the new capitalist America that emerged at the turn of the past two centuries characterized by social and economic changes that an unprecedented set of forces brought about. Some of these forces are: urbanization, which moved violence away from nature and into the city; European and Caribbean immigration, which widened the racial, religious, linguistic, and ethnic mosaic of America and further differentiated the American working-class after the Civil War; the new imperial position of the United States that began to move the center of world politics from the European capitals to this side of the Atlantic in the aftermath of War World I; nativism, essentially a reaction to both the new immigration and the new geopolitics of the United States; Prohibition, which basically created organized crime as we came to know it; as well as the advent of mass production and the emergence of mass culture that the microphone, the radio and the motion picture fueled.
Because of his non-solely color-based racial hybridity, what I refer to as the “invisible blackness” of Italian Americans, their originally contested racial classification upon landing in America between the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries, the Italian American man was best suited to fuse old cultural traits and new modes of representation that started to emerge at the turn of those centuries. In particular, the invisible blackness of the Italian American man allowed mainstream American culture to re-assert its whiteness in the new modern context and in different fashions. The racialization of the Italian American man as a gangster made it possible for white people of Northern European descent facing the previously mentioned unprecedented social, cultural, and economic transformations to re-articulate the fear of the male Other while maintaining control over those changes, a fear historically embodied by the black man in the form of sexual threat and political nightmare (the slave rebellions) that white people exorcized on the stage of the minstrel show. The Italian American man allowed this reification on the new popular stage, the screen of the motion picture and also on the written pages of popular literature. Unlike the Italians, black people had begun to enter a Victorian bourgeois social and mental order. They had also developed a sense of themselves as Americans. No less important is the fact that African Americans had taken full control and therefore altered the English language necessary to represent themselves. “It is not long after the waning of the blackface minstrel in the late nineteenth century,” writes Fred Gardaphé in his study of the Italian American gangster and masculinity, “that the Italian replaced the African as a subject of imitation in popular culture” (13-14). To state it cruelly and somewhat succinctly, but effectively, at the dawn of the new era, the gun replaced the penis, the camera the stage, and the Italian American gangster the African American man.
Of this marriage between modernity and whiteness the Godfather is the officiator. Don Corleone remains the ultimate case study for the critical elaboration of the gangster as the quintessential modern trope that I am going to address in what follows, especially as Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo developed him in the guise of Michael Corleone in the second installment of the cinematic trilogy. My argument is that Don Corleone signifies the transformation of and entails the contradictions of the gangster from the racial, working-class “other” refusing to play by the capitalist rules that the gangster embodied in the first few decades of the past century to white power broker in the last part of it. The Godfather represents both the peak of this tradition and its inverted reinvention, what I see, re-directing Gardaphé’s study toward the racial dimension of the Italian American gangster and Bertellini’s notion of the “racial “discarding” of the Italian Americans, as his transformation from wise guy to white guy. The Godfather represents a totality, as the divinity of his name indicates, as well as the first stage of the gangster as the signifying trope of post War World II modernity that is my focus here. For this reason, I am reading the Godfather as a modern trope rather than as a fictional and cinematic character. For the same reason, my reading triangulates among the novel and the first two movies but concentrates especially on The Godfather Part II, which, in agreement with Thomas J. Ferraro, I view as a re-reading of both the novel and the first cinematic installment.
Crucial to the achievement of this task is the way Puzo and Coppola employ historical memory to undermine the mainstream narrative of assimilation. In Michael Corleone’s case, memory elicits the process whereby the Godfather reprocesses from the perspective of his father’s story the history of his family in America, the country for which he put his life on the line in the second world war, a war his native country fought also against his father’s native country, as one shaped by class division, discrimination, and racial hatred. Seeking to achieve a white world, Michael Corleone finds a disturbing Italian American one. The markers of his memory are the same two intertwined motifs that the gangster tries to repress but that continue to resurface. The first is a subversive mother figure, which can take the form of either a concrete presence or an artistic construct, even a visual meta-artistic representation. Regardless of form, however, memory triggers the return of the mother-directed popular humanism of the Southern Italian immigrants that distinguishes it from both father-directed Protestantism and mother-directed aristocratic Catholicism, or, which is the same, patriarchy in the Mediterranean fashion. The second is the dark skin of the gangster that re-emerges to disrupt its mental universe and alert the viewer and the reader of the Italian Americans’ invisible blackness. Naturally, Puzo’s and Coppola’s works share similar formal structures centered on temporality as well as a thematic and conceptual commonality that re-fashions the question of modernity from the perspective of those who ultimately took the bullets. In the end, for Puzo and Coppola, modernity is the gangster.
From this standpoint, the Italian American gangster can be viewed as a development of the gothic tale of terror and the Godfather as the postmodern heir of what Leslie Fiedler named “the Faustian man” who barters his soul with the devil, a man whose heroic ideals are “revealed as equivocal, problematic-redeemed from easy sentimental acceptance and raised to tragic power” (433). Right from the beginning we are presented with a man, Vito Corleone, who voices a sense of discomfort with his own past as an immigrant in America in direct opposition to his fellow immigrant guest, Amerigo Bonasera. Vito Corleone feels as if he was denied that sense of belonging that America refuses to its future makers as soon as they land on their new soil. Amerigo Bonasera, the character with whom both the novel and the first film open, is the Italian immigrant who believes in America. “You found paradise in America,” the Godfather tells him, Don Vito’s way to remind himself and the audience that unlike his guest he did not. The Godfather did not find paradise in America. On the contrary, he clashed against a culturally and socially homogeneous universe as Puzo and Coppola created it. It is a world epitomized by “the simple, direct, impersonal Anglo-Saxon gun” as the novel defines the deadly machine, a definition that underscores one of the subthemes of the narrative, the depiction of modernity as a technology of racialization (221). This world the Sicilian immigrant from the “Moorish-looking village” of Corleone is forced to embrace in order to make sense of it and survive. And the way to do it after experiencing the hardship and discrimination of immigrant life for Vito Corleone is to adopt and adapt to the structural rationality that to his eyes defines the new world. This is the process of assimilation that Vito Corleone embraces, the only paradise available to this Italian immigrant in America. Those who embrace America wholeheartedly, ideally, for example Amerigo Bonasera, who believed in America and raised his daughter in the American way, end up paying a dear price for it, one that the Godfather has already paid in his native Sicily as a child. American boys ruined for life Bonasera’s daughter, the one possession he has.
The difference between Vito Corleone and previous Italian American gangsters is the same difference that distances the Godfather from his fellow immigrants whom Amerigo Bonasera obviously represents with his broken English. The Godfather rationalizes everything instrumentally, including, if not especially, death. The Godfather is a technology of instrumental rationalization and organization. This is the characteristic that he maximizes, the one that according to Gardaphé distinguishes him from previous gangsters. Unlike his prototypical antecedents before the Second World War, for example Antonio “Scarface” Camonte, Don Vito Corleone does not turn into a social psychopath who kills to climb the ladder of power for the sake of it. He is the exact opposite of a psychopath, which of course makes him a social psychopath of a different kind. Vito Corleone calculates everything while rising to power in order to maintain control over an increasingly modern world that otherwise he thinks is going to destroy him and his family just like those previously mentioned American boys destroyed the life of Bonasera and his daughter. This rationalizing assimilation is what explains the lack of the classic downfall of the gangster after his rise to power because such downfall takes a different form. In typical modern fashion the increasingly modern world that the Godfather does everything to control ends up by increasingly controlling him. His refusal to enter the narcotics business, the forerunner of the global capitalism that his youngest son will be forced to deal with, is the Don’s attempt to keep total control over the modern world when such a world is actually entering his world, to which, eventually, it puts an end, “My father is finished. His way of doing business is finished. Even he knows it” Michael tells his American fiancé Kay Adams when he asks her to marry him after returning to America from Sicily, where his first wife had been killed.
Instrumental rationalization is the Godfather’s modus operandi, the way he conducts himself and business, which happen to be one and the same thing. Both the novel and the first film are filled with passages and scenes that show this principle of conduct, this second nature that defines Vito Corleone. The best example of this ability of his, however, is when Tom Hagen tells him that Sonny has been assassinated on the causeway. Don Vito’s instinctual reaction is to cry, the natural reaction of any father who hears of a son’s assassination, even more so when such a tragic event occurs to a Sicilian immigrant man who just lost his first child and heard the terrible news not in public, where a Sicilian man would not express his feelings but in the private space of his home. Yet, he immediately aborts his emotional reaction and tells Hagen to prepare a meeting with Barzini, the head of the rival family, to stop the mafia war that is undermining the stability of the world the Don has built away from the outside world of modern America, Bonasera’s paradise that to Vito Corleone is starting to look like hell.
Ever since Dante invented it, in the western world hell has been visualized spatially, and Coppola is no exception to the rule. To this end, the framework of the first movie, modeled after the framework of Puzo’s bestselling novel that Ferraro has indicated as the duality that defines the meaning of the novel, juxtaposes the inside and the outside. In this strict spatial dichotomy, the inside – and the inside for Italian Americans like the Corleones is home – represents stability, safety and security. On the contrary, the outside world – and the outside is always and invariably the modern world – represents the opposite: violence and death. In ancient Mediterranean fashion, the Don conducts all his business inside his Long Island residence or in the closed space of his office at work housed in his first American home, his home away from home, New York City’s Little Italy. At home his sons, his consigliere and the capofamiglia Tessio and Clemenza plan on how to react to the attempted assassination of Don Vito. One might even note how in the Long Island mansion Santino Corleone can confidently betray his wife with his sister’s maid of honor Lucy Mancini on the day of his sister’s wedding, while outside, at Lucy’s apartment in the city he needs his bodyguards in front of the entrance to the building to protect him.
Any time a Corleone male or even a Corleone associate puts his nose out of his home he encounters death, an attempt on his life or the announcement of such an attempt. For these men the outside world is a deadly environment that materializes in the symbolically charged form of three pillars of 20th century modernity: the automobile, guns, and the newspaper. The Don is almost assassinated in the street outside of his olive oil business office near an automobile, upon which he falls after being repeatedly shot by Barzini’s and Sollozzo’s hit men under the eyes of his son Fredo who fails to shoot back at them with his pistol. The hit is made possible by the betrayal of the Don’s personal driver, Paulie Gatto, which forced Fredo to go get the Don’s vehicle and leave him alone in the street, a perfect target for an assassination. Later on Gatto too is shot to death in an automobile outside New York City. Santino Corleone, who, unlike Vito, is a father but not a god, is killed on the causeway on his way to the city by Barzini’s hit men who fire a storm of bullets in his car with their machine guns. Even the new male addition to the Corleone family, Connie Corleone’s husband Carlo Rizzi ends up strangled in the automobile by Clemenza per Michael’s order in what one can read as a symbolic inversion of subject positions, of murderer and murdered that reiterates the identification of the automobile as a deadly space. The automobile is a deadly ghost that haunts the Corleone’s men even in Sicily, where Michael’s first wife, Apollonia, is blown up as she starts the car in the garden of the villa where Michael is hiding, exemplifying the boundless, transnational deadly dimension of modernity. Prior to this deadly sequence, Michael finds out about the rival families’ attempt on his father’s life when Kay glimpses the news of the hit on the don in the front page of a newspaper as they walk by a newsstand on New York City’s Broadway after the couple has attended a show at the Radio City Music Hall. And while the fabricated stories in the newspapers by journalists on the Corleone’s payroll serve to expose the police captain’s corruption and calm the public anger towards the mobsters, these same stories force Michael to leave his native country and hide in ancestral Sicily.
In the 1974 sequel, this spatial juxtaposition is replaced with the conflicting parallelism of past and present, which, incidentally, explains why in The Godfather Part II the photography is less stunning than in the first movie. Michael’s life after the death of his father in the first movie runs parallel to the story of how Vito Corleone ended up in America and became the Godfather. Formally speaking, and traditionally form is content, the main difference between the second and the first film and the novel is the shift from space to time. Time replaces space as the conceptual engine that drives the movie. Yet it is not simply chronological, sequential time that we are dealing with, the parts of Puzo’s novel that the author and Coppola had omitted from the script of the first picture and recuperated in the sequel. It is time as historical memory that complicates the recuperated rise and fall plot of the gangster genre embellished with an exotic Italian American communitarian twist. The story of Vito Corleone is presented as a recollection in parallel conflict with Michael’s story, as if Vito Corleone did not belong to his own story, as if he sprang out of Michael’s mind, as the ghost of Michael’s haunted mind. By the end of the film, even the first few minutes that show the Godfather as a child in Sicily, intentionally set in 1901 as the dawn of a new century and a new modern era appear to be the chronological preamble necessary to develop Michael’s subsequent recollection of his father’s up-from-the-ghetto tale.
The switch to memory in the second movie is what turns the Godfather trope into a more cogent critique of modernity. In the first place, it allows Coppola to reinsert in the movie the racialization of the Italian Americans and the power of Italian American motherhood that the first installment, with the partial exception of the last scene, had erased in spite of the numerous markers present in the novel. Suffice it here to say, in order to underscore these elisions, the already cited description of the Godfather’s hometown of Corleone in the novel as “a Moorish-looking village” as well as that of the Don as “short, dark, slender,” (195) – hardly physical features one would associate with Marlon Brando – and of Puzo’s objection to have Michael order the killing of his brother Fredo, an objection the novelist dropped when he was guaranteed that Fredo would be killed after the death of Mama Corleone, the “olive-skinned face” mother of the novel who takes “one of Kay’s hands in her two brown ones” (235).
These two elements return to undermine Michael Corleone when he is no longer engaging in an intra-ethnic war with rival mafia families and is forced to exit the home and the Italian American universe that his father had lived in in his recollection in order to execute his business plan and guarantee the expansion and the survival of his business enterprise. The Godfather is now directly engaging in what we never get to see in the first movie, the outside world of business and politics of which organized crime is as an integral part. A totality that Coppola in a 2012 documentary on the legacy of his Italian American saga in American culture has defined as “capitalism in its purest form,” of which the Godfather character represents its “logic.” It is within this framework that in geo-economic and cultural terms moves among the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the West of the United States and the Caribbean that Coppola, showing us a magnificent example of the intertwining of globalization, transnationalism and transatlantism some forty years before their academic theorizations, develops the character of Michael Corleone also as a way to reinterpret that of his father Vito and shows how the logic of “pure capitalism” needs to repress the ontology and the epistemology of Italian American motherhood and the invisible blackness of the Italian Americans.
Mediterranean motherhood informs The Godfather Part II right from the beginning. Again, the film starts in Sicily in the year 1901, which is Coppola’s way to alert the average moviegoer that knows the Godfather as a post War World II character only that the story she is about to watch is about modern America rather than the American story of The Godfather typically structured on the father-son paradigm enriched with an ethnic twist as the basis for one’s rise to power, an American version of magic realism, what Michael Denning has called a “ghetto pastoral” (Dening 230). The future Godfather, a nine year old, dark haired and dark skinned child named Vito Andolini, the written note on the screen tells the audience, is “the only male heir to stand with his mother at the funeral” of his father because his older brother Paolo has taken to the nearby mountains to organize the killing of Don Ciccio, the local mafia chief who ordered their father’s assassination. The funeral procession is interrupted by the sound of the shotguns that kill Paolo Andolini, upon whose bleeding body his mother kneels in tears under the silent eyes of Vito. It is the first of the two killings that Vito witnesses in a few minutes, as the next scene shows him again standing next to his mother at Don Ciccio’s villa, where she implores the mafia boss to spare Vito’s life, a request that Don Ciccio promptly declines because he fears Vito’s future vengeance, a prophecy that Vito will fulfill toward the end of the movie. When Don Ciccio denies her request, the dark-skinned woman pulls a knife from underneath her black funeral dress, puts it to Don Ciccio’s throat, and tells her son to run away. One of the Don’s guards disarms her and a second guard kills her with his shotgun under the eyes of a dumbfounded Vito, who then manages to escape.
Modernity begins in and with death, the death of this dark skinned Sicilian woman and her selfless, other-directed motherly love. In other words, modernity is baptized in the name of the father, the son and the holy gun. Whereas the first movie begins with a man’s request to another man for a self-interested transaction, Bonasera’s demand to the Godfather to avenge his abused daughter, the second movie begins with the death of the mother of the future Godfather as she tries to save the latter from the man who wants to kill him, the only thing she is left with as she tells don Ciccio when she is inside the don’s residence, as if the coupling of motherhood and dark skin were a threat to the established hierarchy and private property. We might do well, then, to take Gardaphé’s definition of Vito Corleone as “a mother-based gangster, the mother of modern gangsters” (36) literally, from the perspective of motherhood and otherness in its relationship to the development of modernity and whiteness that the movie paints, beginning by noting that in The Godfather Part II in prototypical modern fashion Vito Corleone does not act upon his reality. He reacts to it, instrumentally.
The birth of the Godfather is presented as an allegory that clashes with the mainstream narrative of immigration to America at the service of the fable of synchronic group assimilation and individual success that supposedly political and religious freedom guarantee. Vito Andolini is forced to leave Sicily because of his mother’s failed attempt to win Don Ciccio’s favor. Right from the beginning, the movie subverts the typical immigrant narrative presenting the future Godfather’s story as one of a propertyless undefended fugitive escaping a death sentence. Contrary to the fable of immigration to America as a biblical promised land to desire and reach, Vito Andolini does not decide to leave his home. He is forced to leave Sicily. Vito Andolini is an orphan who has witnessed his mother’s assassination by the mafia. On his own dark skin, he has experienced death as the result of the combination of social hierarchy, modern technology and manhood in the worst way possible for a child, an unmatchable trauma. Because of it, he must leave his home not in search of a better life but to save his life, which is now all he has, his own capital. His forced departure also has a racial underpinning in the hands of an American filmmaker and for an American audience in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, as it is reminiscent of a fugitive man trying to escape a lynching. Don Ciccio’s “picciotti” spend the night and the very early morning looking for Vito in a deserted Corleone, again the “Moorish-looking village,” warning the population that those who are hiding Vito will be punished, whereas those who help find him will be rewarded according to a typical logic of exchange value, where the values at stake are the shared love for an innocent child on the one hand and coerced, self-interested preservation on the other. In other words, love and death are commodities to be exchanged.
The point here is not to equate the experience of Italian immigrants and Vito Andolini with that of fugitive slaves. The point is to signal how the dialectics of modernity produces what will become the gangster of all gangsters as a reaction to the forced movement of people across lands and seas. In the first place the Godfather is the object of this uprooting and the modern world he has been thrust into. His whole life is an attempt, a failed one ultimately, to become a subject of modernity, to regain control over his destiny. It is no coincidence that in the first movie Vito tells Michael that he did not want his type of life for him, that he became a criminal because he did not want to be somebody’s else puppet, he did not want to be the byproduct of social hierarchy and discrimination, which might as well be the saddest line ever uttered by an ethnic character in the history of American cinema since this is exactly what Don Vito became, a puppet of the same logic that caused his mother’s death, a logic of punishment and reward, of self-interested exchange aimed at keeping the established gendered hierarchy in place, incidentally, a clue as to why in terms of political economy the mafia and capitalism fit each other to a T and, I would add, as to why Coppola’s movies, for those able to watch them, do not glorify the mafia. If anything, they indict it.
The Don’s early life trajectory presents Vito’s self-interested, instrumental rationalizing reaction to class division that the ghost of his mother’s death signifies. His transformation from proletarian clerk in a grocery store in New York City’s Little Italy to a gangster and olive oil businessman, an association that reminds us that the gangster is first and foremost a businessman, and, perhaps, that the inner logic of business is the gangster, takes the form of an inverted reminiscence of his mother’s assassination. Vito and his friend Genco Abbandando, a dark skinned Sicilian with very crispy black hair attend a play in Little Italy’s immigrant theatre because Genco is attracted to the young actress who performs in it, who also happens to be the daughter of the owner of the theatre. In the play, tellingly titled “Senza Mamma,” without mother, a male immigrant from Naples is homesick for his mother. He laments that he has not received any news from her in a long time. When the news arrives in a letter, they announce her death, something that we might reasonably suppose must not go unnoticed in Vito’s mind, even more so when Genco drags him backstage to meet the actress but where the two witness the Black Hand’s boss Fanucci extort the theatre’s owner by threatening his daughter’s life. Fanucci grabs the young woman, holds a knife to her face, and tells her father that he will kill her if he does not pay him the agreed upon sum. This is nothing short of Vito’s past that comes back, as if his past were not past. This time, however, the local mafia boss is the one who holds the knife to the throat of a woman whose father watches as impotent as Vito was when his mother did the same gesture to protect him. When later Vito asks Genco as to why an Italian maltreats and robs other Italians, that is to say, why there is no difference between Sicily and the United States for the immigrants, Genco replies that nobody protects them, which is precisely what propelled the reaction of Vito’s mother against Don Ciccio, to protect her child. Again, the score of critics (and Italian American organizations) that see the Godfather movies as a glorifier of organized crime should do well to take note of how historically accurate and socially critical of both the mafia and its basic historical causes this fictional tale is. As in Sicily, the failure of the state to protect the poor and the dispossessed is a prime reason for the flourishing of organized crime. It also indicates the consequences of class division and the discrimination against the Other, in this case the Italian immigrants who do not deserve the state’s presence and protection. It is the same lack of protection that causes Vito to lose his job at the grocery store of his friend’s father when Fanucci forces Signor Abbandando to hire his nephew in place of Vito.
Protection, or the lack thereof at both the individual and collective level becomes the fuel of Vito’s life and his rise as a gangster, what Vito Corleone reacts to. And what Vito does in reaction to this lack of protection is never for monetary reasons. It is, however, dictated by calculated, rationalized gendered self-interest, good old fashion rugged individualism clothed in the semblance of ethnic communitarian garments. This mother-based gangster acts as a seeming protector of the poor and the exploited, and especially of women, without demanding an immediate financial return in order to enhance his own self-interest as a way to have control over his life and the world he inhabits. The Godfather earns friendships and receives respect in exchange for his favors, but “never for profit” as Puzo writes at the beginning of the novel (15). Modern Robin Hood, Vito Corleone along with his neighbor and future partner in crime and business Clemenza steals from the rich but never abuses the poor. The killing of Fanucci is presented as a reaction to protect the people of Little Italy like the theatre’s owner and his daughter. Yet, he protects them not in order for them to rise together with him, collectively, but in order for him to rise above them, even symbolically, as he does when he walks on the roofs of their homes, above them to reach Fanucci at his apartment and kill him while his fellow Italians celebrate Saint Rocco.
The protection that Vito Corleone offers is always instrumental to his own self-interest and the control of the world he inhabits. But his self-interest affirms itself, or at least it is presented as an indirect consequence. It is a rung in the ladder to get to the top. And yet his ascension to godfatherhood happens by negation. The killing of Fanucci is the elimination of a competitor in the marketplace of crime. When Vito tells Clemenza and Tessio that he will take care of Fanucci, he asks that in return they will remember that he did them a favor. Upon his wife’s request, Vito takes care of a widow, Signora Colombo, whose Calabrese landlord wants to evict from her apartment. The iconography of the scene could not be any clearer in this regard. When don Roberto, the landlord, appears in a state of terror in Vito’s office at his now established olive oil business after he found out who Vito Corleone is, on the wall behind Vito the viewer can observe a painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. Even the last name of the widow, Colombo, seems to reinforce Vito’s reputation as a protector of all the immigrants of Little Italy, if not of the new world, true to the divinity of his name. However, what’s left intact, along with Signora Colombo home rental, which actually don Roberto decreases, is the social hierarchy of Little Italy that reflects the social hierarchy of America and the position of the women and mothers of Little Italy, which replicates their position in Italy. At best, they get a painting on the wall that reinforces the symbolism of how motherly caring their men are. If paradise did not turn into hell yet for Vito Corleone it is also because the new world looks a lot like the old.
Vito’s trajectory comes full circle when he returns to Sicily. Now an established gangster in America, Vito goes back to his hometown with his wife and their children on a trip to expand his olive oil business. The trip also presents itself as the opportunity for Vito to have his vengeance on Don Ciccio, who clearly had been a good prophet of his own future, another identification between business and death that makes the two terms of this equation interchangeable. Before Vito goes to visit Don Ciccio we see him with his Italian relatives and friends at the table having lunch. Perhaps not coincidentally, he presents some old Sicilian women with a small reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, the “mother of exiles,” the symbol of the new world. It is the proper introduction to what comes after, when Don Tommasino, Vito’s Sicilian business partner, takes him to Don Ciccio’s villa, introduces him to the don as Vito Corleone from New York, and asks for Don Ciccio’s blessing for their business, by which he means his partnership to expand the olive oil business between Sicily and the U.S. Don Ciccio asks Vito who his father was. Now old and with his hearing faculties partially impaired, he can’t hear the answer and asks Vito to move closer to him and repeat the name. Firstly, Vito repeats his father’s name in the ear of the old don, then he drives a knife across Don Ciccio’s upper body as he says, “e chisto è ppe tti [and this is for you].” Vito kills Don Ciccio with a knife, the same technology that his mother used to threaten the don to protect her son, but he does it, literally, in the name of the father. And by so doing he also secures the expansion of the oil business. In the name of the father, what Ferraro calls the business of family is taken care of, concretely and symbolically.
What fueled Vito’s rise to power is what returns to destroy Michael, which as long as the Corleones stayed in their ethnic universe did not present itself as a conflicting issue. Rather, it served Vito well in his rise to power. But when Michael discovers his Italian American identity in reaction to his father’s recollected story, the memory of it, he also realizes that the logic of capitalism in its purest form forces him to repress the invisible blackness and the power of motherhood that is a defining part of his identity. And the more Michael tries to repress them, the more they become disruptive forces in his life. Eventually, they will tear him apart.
The elision of his invisible blackness begins with a well-orchestrated three-part sequence that is essentially the second beginning of The Godfather Part II. The initial moment is the first communion party for Michael’s and Kay’s son Anthony that showcases the dissolution of the immigrant world of Vito Corleone and begins to show Michael’s attempted mimicry of whiteness, an inversed minstrelsy with no dark humor we might say. Next we hear Nevada senator Pat Geary mispronounce Anthony’s second name Vito, his paternal grandfather’s first name, a wonderful example of assimilation as elision that occurs through a process of absorption that is performed linguistically. The third and final moment is the Senator’s racial slur against Michael.
To begin with, gone is the East Coast where most Italians first settled in the new land, their own American frontier where they built their many Little Italies; gone is the Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard-inspired party of Costanza Corleone’s wedding in the first movie; gone is the Italian American music to celebrate the wedding, Mama Corleone singing “Zuma Zuma Baccalà” and Johnny Fontaine doing Sinatra’s mythic parody; gone is the Don dancing with the bride and his wife; gone are the FBI agents and the photographers outside of the Long Island mansion that anger Santino Corleone; and gone are the Italian Americans in attendance, the only kind of people that the Godfather seems to know in the first movie aside from German Irish Tom Hagen, the exception that dutifully confirms the rule. In their place are now a painstakingly boring and plastic party where the music is provided by an orchestra that manages to turn Frankie Pentangeli’s attempt to have them play a tarantella into “Pop Goes the Weasel!”; a youth choir that one can take as white America’s paranoid emulation of bourgeois European culture; the police outside the mansion providing security to the party; and last but not least, Nevada Senator Pat Geary and his wife in attendance to celebrate Michael’s financial donation to the University of Las Vegas. Instead of the family picture of the first movie, the photo taken here is that of the Senator and his wife with Michael and Kay. Business has replaced the family because “capitalism in its purest form” equals whiteness as Michael is about to be reminded by the Senator.
When the latter announces Michael’s generous donation to the university he anglicizes the pronunciation of the name Vito. In other words, he whitens it. This phonetic distortion acquires even greater meaning because prior to this moment we witnessed the immigration officer at Ellis Island changing young Vito’s last name because he cannot understand Italian. Just like the new modern world absorbs difference by erasing the cipher of one’s main form of identification, his last name, so does the senator. One is tempted to emend Marx’s famous observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. When history repeats itself, the second time is a tragic farce. As if the Senator’s phonetic elision of the Don’s first name were not enough, when the Senator and Michael meet in the latter’s office inside the house to discuss a deal for a state gambling license for a new casino that Michael needs for his expansion plans, the Senator unchains all his racism against Michael. After pronouncing the last name “Corleone” with a derogatory tone, prolonging the final “e” pronounced in correct Italian, what we might define as linguistic racism, he tells him “I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country in your oily hair — dressed up in those silk suits – and try to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is, I despise your masquerade — the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself, and your whole fucking family,” to which an unperturbed Michael replies, “Senator – we’re both part of the same hypocrisy. But never think it applies to my family.”
The Senator’s words are a stunningly racist attack, one that strangely but perhaps tellingly has gone virtually unnoticed by the critical industry that the novel and the movies generated. Yet in the end what is most relevant about this exchange is not the senator’s racism per se as despicable as it might be – and it is immensely despicable. Nor is it the self-reassuring, historically fictional racial purity that the Senator claims for America, America’s whiteness as the true identity of the country. The point here is that the senator turns an Italian American gangster into a racial synecdoche, “your kind of people”. In his eyes Michael wears a mask to pass as a “decent American,” an identity that the senator reserves for white people, as if Michael were not white, which to this white man that officially represents Michael’s native country clearly he is not. Equally poignant is the racial corollary of this exchange. However reluctantly, the white man can make a business deal with an Italian American man without having to renounce to his supposed racial purity and without contaminating America. Money keeps America white. Money can absorb racial difference and keep America’s identity racially homogeneous in the white man’s fantasy. But no less important is Michael acknowledgement that to play the game of capitalism he has to renounce to the invisible blackness that he recognizes as his and his family’s identity; who they really are, their present as well as their past as the temporal adverb in his answer indicates, “Never think it applies to my family,” and for once the word family means just that.
For the rest of the movie, the family becomes a constant reminder of Michael’s attempt to pass, a symptom of Americanization as a process of assimilation that dissolves one’s past. Paradoxically, and paradoxes take to the core of an issue, the fundamental and in the end only difference between Michael and his father, what marks the development of the Godfather trope is a shift in the development of modernity. Vito Corleone could use his ethnicity to build his empire because he knew who he was. The first thing that he rationalized was that he knew where he came from, whereas Michael not only has to break up the family to expand his business, but such breakup forces him confronting himself in relation to what his family’s history means. Something that as the movie proceeds, the Corleone women who happen now to be and act as mothers increasingly identify. And there is nothing that the Godfather hates more than confronting an Italian American mother because that would mean to confront his own self and history.
At dinner on the evening of Anthony’s communion the family along with Frankie Pentangeli and the ever present Catholic priest, the sign that the Corleones have really made it, Connie explains to Fredo’s utterly blonde white wife that the Italian saying “cent’anni” is a way to invoke good health and happiness, but she adds, “It’d be true if my father were alive,” a comment that ticks off Michael. The old Italian saying is actually how Connie, Fredo, Mike, Frankie Pentangeli, Tom Hagen, and Father Carmelo respond to Mama Corleone’s toast “famiglia”. Also in Italian Mama Corleone whispers to Tom Hagen her comment about Fredo’s wife and Connie’s new boyfriend, who also happens to be white as one can be, “ma chisti due so proprio uguali” [“why, these two are just the same”], a statement that reveals the original racial distance between Italian Americans and white Americans as well as language as a component of racial difference, something that becomes more tangible as the movie goes on. At the same time, this exchange points out how Kay Adams and Tom Hagen are not considered white in the Corleone circle. Dark skinned Mama Corleone exposes ethnicity as neither a matter of biology nor of family, let alone as one’s inherited identity. It is one’s choice historically determined or, to use the vocabulary of Werner Sollors’ Beyond Ethnicity, it is a matter of consent. Deanna is Fredo’s wife after all, whereas Tom Hagen has neither biological nor ethnic connection to the Corleones. He is a German-Irish, probably the only such ethnic character in the history of American cinema to speak Sicilian and know the Mediterranean sociocultural codes, and as such a spectacular example of reversed assimilation as well. Perhaps, Michael’s reply to the Senator was true. Perhaps Michael was right. Whiteness does not apply to his family, especially if by his family we intend the women of his family, the people who guarantee the family’s reproduction and the preservation of the past, and who also happen to be the only Corleones except the Godfather who either die a natural death or, to say it through William Faulkner, who endure.
By the same token, the Senator was right too. Michael tries to pass as somebody who he is not. At the mythic level, in the sense of the mythic power of the imagination that is how in terms of narrative Coppola works out the representation of each character in the movie, Michael Corleone may as well be the only Italian American who does absolutely nothing resembling the myth of an Italian American man of the 1950s, especially one who grew up in New York City’s Little Italy. His clothes, pace Senator Geary’s anti-Italian American racism, exude white, bourgeois respectability. They are impeccable suits that would make Michael indistinguishable from any Wall Street broker, company executive chief, or, for that matter, a United States senator. The immigrant clothes that his father wore in the first movie are not even a dusting option in Michael’s wardrobe. His body language is equally signifying of the mask he wears. When he returns from his business trip to Cuba, he asks his bodyguard Al Neri, who interestingly has the same first name as Capone and whose last name’s literal translation is “blacks,” for a wet towel to freshen himself with, which he does in the most meticulous way to preserve his impeccable composure. Michael, who learned from Clemenza how to make sauce, never eats any Italian food. Actually, Michael Corleone may as well be the only Italian American who never eats except for biting an orange because of stress when he plots Hyman Roth’s assassination. He even refuses food when Roth’s wife offers him a sandwich, when he conducts business. Michael does drink, and quite often, in this aspect true heir to 1930s gangsters, but less compulsively in the gestures than those gangsters and always extremely careful not to spill a drop. Moreover, all he drinks is either whiskey or club soda, American drinks, white drinks we might say. Wine, or the Sicilian anisette that his father loved more and more as he grew older and that Frankie Pentangeli requests when he meets Michael at Anthony’s communion party, do not interest him. Pentangeli even refers to Michael drinking the occasional champagne cocktail during his son’s communion party as one of the signs that he has forgotten where he comes from. Michael’s lack of interest in food is only matched by his lack of interest in sex, not exactly a typical feature of the myth of the Italian American man. Michael Corleone is a man who wants to be on top of everything and everybody except women. The only time we see him on top of a woman is when he drags his wife not to bed but out of their bed and onto the floor to avoid a different kind of penetration, the bullets of the machine guns of Roth’s hit men.
The one thing that Michael does is take anti-depressants, as we see him doing when he rides the train to Florida on his way to Cuba with his bodyguard. Several decades before Harold Ramis and David Chase put an Italian American gangster on the chair of a shrink and had him take anti-depressants, Michael Corleone takes anti-depressant pills to keep on his mask. This is the price he pays to pass as a decent American and to be able to sit together with his enemy Hyman Roth next to the CEOs of major American corporations in a meeting with Cuba’s corrupted military dictator and get a lucrative deal. The last names of these CEOs speak volumes about the intertwining of modernity and whiteness and Michael’s attempt to pass: Shaw, Corngold, Dant, Petty, and Allen. Equally telling are the two ways in which the Cuban people are represented in the film. One is a revolutionary rebel who sacrifices his life for the cause he believes will liberate his country from a dictator; the other is a dark skinned child who stares at Michael in a cab while in Havana, just as a dark-skinned Vito Corleone of roughly the same age as the Cuban child stared at his mother being killed by don Ciccio. Drugs and paranoia: this is how Michael Corleone assimilates and Coppola’s way to tell us that modernity is the gangster. Toward the end of the movie Tom Hagen asks Mike as to why he feels the need to wipe everybody out now that he has won his war. Michael gives Tom the most paranoid and yet the most logical and coherent of the answers because paranoia is the end product of the complete unfolding of capitalist competition, its essence, “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out Tom. Just my enemies.” And in his mind everybody is his enemy, or, the same, his competitor.
A ghost is haunting Michael Corleone, Michael Corleone himself, the only enemy he has, which his use of the Italian language reveals. In this regard it is especially profitable to remind how in the novel Vito suffered racial discrimination by American and Irish men when he worked on the railway because of his native language. Equally profitable is to point out how technically English, not Italian, is Michael’s native language. Whereas Sicilian and Italian do not identify him as an Italian, English does identify Michael as an American, which nothing else does, not even the Navy Cross he has earned in World War II, as the member of a Senate Committee makes abundantly clear during his hearings. In The Godfather, before killing Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, Michael switches from his broken Italian to English to tell Sollozzo that he needs to know that there will not be any more attempts to assassinate his father. In Sicily Michael commands one of his two bodyguards to translate from English into Italian to make sure that Apollonia’s father understands whom Michael really is and what is he doing by revealing his identity when he asks his future father in law permission to marry his daughter.
In The Godfather Part II, instead, the Italian language works for Michael as a safety valve. It reassures him, however temporarily. Just as the gun is an Anglo-Saxon technology of killing, in strict theoretical terms English is the language of crime and money. Clemenza inquires if Vito speaks Italian (which to Clemenza is a form of Sicilian) before asking him to hide his pistols. Later on, he asks Vito if he is interested in some business, the first hint that business equals crime. Vito, who lives in Little Italy and goes back home with Il Progresso Italo Americano in the pocket of his jacket, replies “Yeah, sure,” before switching back to Sicilian, two of the thirty one English words he speaks in 46.09 minuteswhile he is on the screen as an adult. At the beginning of the second movie, when Connie goes see Michael with her new, WASP fiancée who Michael ignores and despises immediately, Michael turns to Italian to extract from his younger sister the truth he already knows, that Connie needs money. First, he goes around in circles in English. Suddenly, he turns to his sister and asks her, “Che vuoi!?’ [“What do you want], to which Connie replies, aptly in English, “I need money!” Likewise, in Frankie Pentangeli’s home in New York City, the home that used to belong to Vito Corleone where Michael was raised and where Pentangeli and his wife speak Italian, Michael instructs Pentangeli on how he intends to deal with Hyman Roth and the Rosato brothers in English, but his last words to Pentangeli are in Italian and they are uttered with a Sicilian inflection, “hai capito? [did you get it?]. Finally, during the meeting to plan Roth’s assassination, after Tom Hagen reassures Michael that he is not leaving him, that he turned down the job offer he has received about which Michael has just inquired maliciously, Michael tells him, “Allora tu stai? [so you are staying?],” to which Tom, in what might be, in strictly ethnic sense, a revealing Freudian slip, responds also using the second person of the verb instead of the first, “Si, io stai [Yes, I am staying].”
The mother tongue is what brings back into the picture the mother figure literally, which sets in motion the conceptual demolition of the Godfather rather than its actual fall. Toward the end of the movie a completely displaced Michael goes to visit his mother in the penthouse where she now lives. He speaks to her in her native tongue, in Sicilian. He asks her about his father’s inner feelings and thoughts. He asks her if one can ever lose his family, in a desperate, futile attempt to avoid the final confrontation with himself. When his mother tries to reassure him that a man can never lose his family, Michael switches back to Italian and says, “I tempi cambiano [times are changing],” the hippie filmmaker’s reference to Bob Dylan as a way to let the 1974 audience know that the story of the Corleones is the story of America in the 20th century.
And times do change for Don Corleone after the Senate hearings when another mother comes back in the picture, when the mother of his children tells him that she aborted the child that she was expecting. Until this moment Kay has been literally trapped in the physical site where historically Italian American women ruled, the home, which is instead the Don’s territory. At the beginning of the movie, the blonde Anglo-Saxon upper middle-class woman from New Hampshire continues to pretend to believe Michael’s promise to change. She is even pictured in her bedroom at the sewing machine as Michael returns from his trip to New York City, modern day American Penelope, although, aptly for the wife of an Italian American gangster, with no suitors in her home. Later in the movie she tries to leave the estate with the kids to drive to Reno, but the guards refuse to open the gate. Tom explains to her that it is Michael’s order to protect her and the kids. Obediently, she returns inside the house. After the senate hearings, however, Kay confronts her husband in the hotel room where they stay in Washington. There, outside of the home, in neutral territory, she confronts him at face value, as it were. She tells Michael that she is leaving him and intends to take the children with her. Initially, Michael tries to maintain the status quo. He knows that a confrontation with Kay is precisely what he’s been avoiding since the end of the first movie. He tells her that he knows she is upset because of the miscarriage and his failure to make the Corleone business a legitimate enterprise, but that he will change and they will have another child and move on. A hopeless and exhausted Kay replies that he has “become blind,” that she did not have a miscarriage. That she had an abortion, “just like our marriage is an abortion, something that’s unholy and evil” Kay tells him using a religious vocabulary that shows how she has mastered the rhetoric of the cultural codes that supposedly Italian American women of the 1950s lived by. She continues and tells him that the child was what Michael wanted, a boy, completing the switch of her subject position and forcing Michael to confront her, in what is less a tribute to 1960s and ’70s feminism than to the rebellious tradition of Italian American women here represented by Vito’s mother at the beginning of the movie, to whom symbolically Kay is now connected. “I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world. It was a son, a son, Michael, and I’ve had it killed because this must all end!” Kay goes on under Michael’s petrified eyes.
If there is an Italian American character at the end of the movie, this is the WASP lady from New Hampshire. We can go even farther and argue that if there is a gangster left at the end this exchange, this is Kay Corleone. By “killing” what she calls Michael’s son she unchains herself from the Godfather and acquires her agency as a woman and a mother who is no longer willing to be complicit in a world of death and betrayal, beginning with Michael’s betrayal of himself. Unlike what most critics assume, what provokes Michael to the point that he hits his wife, something no godfather would even dream of doing, is not the abortion that supposedly put at risk the future survival of the business of the family. It is the fact that in the end Kay’s decision is an act of shared and disinterested love that unmasks the Godfather, the only enemy that Michael is unable to kill. When Kay tells Michael that she had an abortion, she is in tears and tells him that she knows he would never forgive her. More important, she thinks of the abortion as “killing,” an idea that no American feminist, certainly not in the year after the Supreme Court made abortion legal, would associate with this medical proceeding. Kay tells Michael that she would not bring another of his sons into this world, the modern world that Michael thinks he can control but that actually controls him, “capitalism in its purest form” with its patriarchal corollary. This is what “must end” in Kay’s words. No wonder, then, that when she demolishes the man who tries to pass for what he is not, the super blonde WASP lady from New England has dark hair and carries a cross around her neck along with another necklace.
In one of the last scenes of the movie Michael enters the kitchen of his home where the children and Connie have just said goodbye to Kay who visited with them. Standing just outside the kitchen’s door she asks Anthony to kiss her. For the first time in, by then, almost three hours of the film, Michael looks the exact opposite of Senator Geary’s racist description. No oily hair, no silky suits, and no masquerade. He is casually dressed, with no styling product on his dark hair. However, the skin on his face is improbably dark. He has a very notable tanned face. As he walks toward the door of the kitchen the camera switches between Kay’s and Michael’s faces, highlighting the latter’s dark skin that has no factual logic whatsoever in the narrative of the film. Where did the man who spends most of his life inside closed spaces get his tan? Certainly not in snowy Nevada; certainly not in the few minutes he spent on the balcony of Hymen Roth’s hotel room in Havana; and certainly not on vacation, since Michael Corleone does not take vacations. As dark skinned Michael closes the door of the kitchen, the room that identifies an Italian American home right in the face of the mother of his children, one wonders what America lost when the Godfather became the indecent American that he never wanted to be.
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