The Cult of Death in The Brotherhood, The Leopard and The Godfather Trilogy
Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (1968) can be situated as a middle term between Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1962) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990). In its handling of the link between violence and ritual, in its delineation of fraternal rivalry and the tensions between Mafia “family” and blood relations, it clearly paves the way for the Coppola films; by establishing a significant connection between sleep and death, weariness and the passing of the old ways, as well as metaphorically connecting its protagonist to an animal, it hearkens back to Visconti’s film. This paper will examine in detail the major ramifications of these links.
Violence and Ritual. Ritt’s film establishes the connection between violence and ritual in several ways: through mise-en-scene, incidental dialogue and in an extended final scene of confrontation between the two brothers. In the opening sequence, when Frank and Vince return to Frank’s villa, Vince’s room is filled with religious iconography: paintings and statues, primarily depicting the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Jesus. As the film unfolds, the role of the mother (la santa mama) comes to describe the old, purely Sicilian structure of the Mafia, prior to the supposed purge, or “Night of Sicilian Vespers”. This institution plays a more fundamental role in the film’s narrative than any actual mother, be it Ida or Emma, as it urges one of its children, Frank (who explicitly refers to himself as a pisciotto in the final scene), on to vendetta, even though his death as a result is assured. Frank’s sacrifice, his own death at the hands of his brother, therefore also subtly references the biblical narrative of Jesus and Judas: betrayal sealed with a kiss (a moment which immediately brings to mind the moment between Michael and Fredo in The Godfather Part II). Death is foreshadowed from the beginning, before the extended flashback, when we see Vince in his room, pacing back and forth in front of all these religious images, and Ritt cuts to a brief shot of a gun in his suitcase.
In a scene about halfway through the film, Frank compares his rise in the Mafia organization to the rites of passage of Vince’s adolescence: “Your first Holy Communion, I was fightin’ one-to-ten in Dannemora. When you had your Confirmation, I was breakin’ arms and legs to get this union.” Much as these rites delineate significant moments in Vince’s transition from childhood to manhood, they represent formative episodes in Frank’s development. They also speak to a prolonged history of violence: Frank’s position was acquired through brutality and intimidation.
The extended final sequence, where Frank engineers his own assassination, takes place against the backdrop of a festival and ritual which dates back to the influence of Greek culture in Sicily —the opening of the wine casks. Significantly, in ancient usage (such as the Anthesteria), whereas the first several days of the festival contained merriment, drinking bouts and ceremonies in honor of Bacchus, the third day was a celebration of the dead. The scene contains folk music featuring a mouth harp, which previously had appeared on the soundtrack at moments of tension and incipient violence. This music, ostensibly celebratory, lends the scene an air of the carnivalesque, that sanctioned and circumscribed time when social customs and societal order go topsy-turvy. Frank repeatedly calls for music and leaps atop the casks to “conduct” the opening ceremony himself: in Italian, he decrees that the first drink goes to his brother. Since, as Frank tells Vince, “Everybody’s related,” this inclusion binds Vince even more closely to the social body and order (la santa mama and patrimony of Sicily), perhaps serving in Frank’s mind to transfer the ways of the old order, which otherwise would die with him, to Vince. Franks sees this order as inherent in the very elemental nature of the Sicilian air and soil: “You know how I felt the first time a capo called me mafiusu? Jesus. Somebody with respect. The word is like a rock. La santa mama. Omertá. Old stuff in the States but here it’s in the air, Vinny. You don’t know how good it was for me to come back.” While it is obvious that he draws identity and authority from his Old World surroundings, the irony of his claim is not lost on Frank. The last words in the film are his, and they belie the ineluctable nature of the violence about to befall him: “Ain’t that funny? Me like Pop, you like me. Like we was all the same guy. Ain’t that funny?”
The inevitability of change, the passage of old ways, brings to mind Visconti’s film and the figure of Don Fabrizio. Interestingly, both Frank and Don Fabrizio equate themselves with hunted animals (in Don Fabrizio’s case, nearly to extinction). Don Fabrizio says, “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us—leopards, lions, jackals and sheep—we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.” Frank describes his own murder weapon—which belonged to their father and had been kept for them by a compare or co-father)—in detail, imbuing it with the significance of a sacramental instrument: “These [bullets] we call a’lupara. To kill u lupu—a wolf…You know how long we been usin’ this kind of gun? When one of us is gonna get it, it’s gotta happen after wine and eating with all the relations. First food, love, then a’lupara.” By this logic, Frank is a wolf, a predator that threatens the herd—ordinary society—and must be treated accordingly. The food and wine signify a profane Communion, or love feast (agapē), before the violence begins.
The subtle linkage between violence and ritual employed by Ritt becomes elaborated and institutionalized (as it were) by Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather Trilogy. Part One opens with the parallel worlds of Don Vito’s office and his daughter Connie’s wedding reception. According to an alleged Sicilian custom, the father of the bride can refuse no request made to him on the wedding day. The request is for murder, in revenge for an attempted rape. However, the request is disproportionate to Don Vito’s sense of justice and it is granted only in modified form.
This sense of equilibrium is not maintained in the climactic scene of the film, where Michael (now assumptive Godfather of the Corleone mafia family) arranges for the assassination of all his rivals (Moe Green, the heads of the Five Families), which runs parallel to the ritual of the baptism of Connie’s son (Michael’s namesake for whom he acts as literal Godfather). Significantly, this sequence is preceded by Don Vito’s funeral. Against the backdrop of funerary monuments and memorial wreaths, the camera singles out the prospective victims of Michael’s purge. And it is here that Michael declares himself Godfather (literally and figuratively).
The sequence opens with the participants of the ritual lost amid the cavernous shadows of the cathedral. Organ music plays in almost funereal tones; the infant wails. These sounds (at once diegetic and extra-diegetic), intensifying in volume and insistence, carry over into the parallel actions of the assassins and their victims which, along with the accelerated montage (a term derived by Sergei Eisenstein in description of D. W. Griffith’s pioneering narrative cross-cutting), serve to meld form and content. The preparation for the baptism parallels those of the assassins. The Liturgy (in Latin and English) speaks to the omnipotence of God the Father; the actions of the assassins speak to the power of Michael as Godfather. As Michael renounces Satan and all his works, his henchmen carry out the bloody killings. This is an example of what Eisenstein called “intellectual montage”—ideas expressed through the juxtaposition of montage—here steeped in a kind of irony. The violence profanes the cleansing power of the ritual and transforms its nature into a veritable “baptism in blood”—the dripping of the water onto the infant stands in for the spatters and splashes of blood. In a formal parallel, one of the killings takes place on a long flight of steps, which then feature in the end of the baptism scene, as Michael and his family come out of the cathedral. Similar steps will figure in the climax of the third film. All these iterations point to the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and so emphasize Coppola’s source for these narrative and editorial choices.
In the second film, the juxtaposition between ritual and violence takes place between a young Vito’s killing of Don Fanucci and the street festival of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood. This festa (as it is referred to in the film) honors the patron saint of Naples and serves as mark of ethnic identity held in balance with the forces of cultural assimilation (hence the presence of both American and Italian flags, and the playing of the National Anthem as well as Italian folk music). The procession includes a statue of Saint Januarius (aka San Gennaro), to which celebrants pin offerings of money. This money testifies to the prosperity of the immigrant community as a whole, being distributed subsequently to the poor and needy within the community. Don Fanucci’s livelihood is extracted from this community in an extortionist manner, and Vito’s killing is portrayed as an act of liberation dedicated to the well-being of his family.
The third film presents a more complex play of juxtapositions. Initially, it portrays another parallel between killing and street festival. However, not only does this killing act in opposition to the similar killing in Part Two, but it is later taken up and transformed in the climactic sequence of the film. The first sequence shows the very public assassination of Joey Zaza by Vincent Corleone (later to become the third assumptive Godfather) during another street festival: this time it is the festa of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This shift in religious provenance to the Virgin Mary attains its full significance only in the final scene of the film.
The sequence opens with an establishing shot that is almost identical to that opening the similar scene in the second film, adjusted only for the relative contemporaneity of the film (set around 1980, as the second had been around 1920). The role of Joey Zaza roughly parallels that of Don Fanucci. Almost immediately, however, there is a change in emphasis. Rather than sauntering down the street as Don Fanucci had, Zaza is holding court for a group of journalists, defensively berating its portrayal of the Italian-American community, denying the existence of any such thing as “Mafia” or “Cosa Nostra”. He offers a more positive assessment of the community’s contributions to society: “We have Meucci. He invented the telephone. We have Don Ameche who played the guy who invented the telephone.” The play of presentation and (re)presentation in this scene is highly reflexive, emphasizing the refractions of identity (both individual and communal) through the prism of the media.
This theme of presentation is carried further when it is revealed that one of the assassins (lupara now in hand) had been posing as a litter-bearer of the Virgin’s statue. His actions cause the litter to collapse, smashing the statue of Madonna and child. Now we see that the uniformed patrolman on a horse (glimpsed fleetingly throughout the build-up of the scene) is in actuality Vincent, who proceeds to shoot Zaza then and there. These very public actions cause chaos, disrupting (and profaning) the festival, sending the participants scrambling for cover. In distinction to Vito’s actions in the second film, where he waits for Fanucci to go indoors, thus preserving the public scene with privatized violence, Vincent’s actions disturb the community in ways that only subsequent scenes (where he is berated for his rash behavior by an ailing Michael) will fully reveal.
The final extended sequence takes up the iconography of the earlier festival and incorporates it within a work of art (Cavalleria Rusticana), thus serving as meta-commentary on the status of the film within the tradition signified by Pietro Mascagni’s opera (and Giovanni Verga’s original story), and establishing a complicated play of actions between the characters on the stage and within the film. Significantly, by this incorporation, Coppola alerts us to his thematic and stylistic indebtedness to the epic and exalted elements of the operatic, rather than the verismo (realism) and understated quality of Verga’s story.
Michael’s son only symbolically dies onstage in his role as Turiddu, whereas his daughter Mary is killed on the steps of the Theatro Massimo opera house (hearkening back to the steps featuring so prominently in the first film, thus bringing the trilogy around full circle, as well as to the shattered statue of Mary earlier in the film). Onstage, after the announcement of Turiddu’s death, one of the women covers her head with a black shawl. Outside, after Mary’s death, announced on the soundtrack by a cry similar to that in the opera, Connie replicates this gesture.
We begin to see how moments within the opera call back moments from the earlier films. Events onstage also parallel those unfolding in the final purge (ordained by both Michael and Vincent). Announcement of the Pope’s death follows the moment the crucified Christ is borne onto the stage. The appearance of Death (in traditional garb: black robe and skeletal face) cross-cuts with the death of Don Altobello (via poisoned cannoli brought for him by his goddaughter Connie). As he dies, she (watching with opera glasses) says, “Sleep. Sleep, Godfather.” This equation between death and sleep occurs also in the other films under discussion and will be explored in the next section.
Subsequent to Don Altobello’s death, the risen Christ emerges from the tomb onstage. However, such hope of resurrection is not extended by the film to any of its characters. After Mary’s death, a montage shows all the women Michael has lost throughout the series, and then concludes with the solitary death of Michael at his Sicilian villa. Every true narrative, as Orson Welles once said, must end in death.
Death and Sleep. The connection between death and sleep is longstanding. “How wonderful is Death. Death and his brother Sleep!” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, referring to the ancient tradition holding that Death and Sleep were twin brothers (Thanatos and Hypnos). Each of the films under discussion invokes this relationship (we have already seen it mentioned in Godfather III). Ritt’s film establishes it through mise-en-scene and dialogue. In an early scene, Frank comes home drunk and, after some amorous and sensual foreplay with his wife Ida, passes out before anything can be consummated). The final shot of the scene shots Frank lying in Ida’s arms, diagonal to the POV of the camera). The following match cut shifts the scene to a funeral (already prepared for in an earlier scene via dialogue between Frank and Don Peppino): the dead man in the coffin holds the same angle relative to the camera as had Frank. The association is unmistakable.
Later in the film, a key scene between brothers unfolds with Frank lying in bed. Vince comes to plead with him to accept the vote and talk things over with Don Bertolo. To emphasize what the mise-en-scene already conveys, at one point in the argument Frank mutters, “Honest to God, I’m tired.” His exhaustion is linked to impotence (an impotence hinted at in the earlier scene with Ida). He tells Vince: “In Sicily, when we wanna make the bull fat, we take a knife and cut him so he’s no good no more with a cow. He’s no good for nothing. He don’t fight, just gets fat. That’s the vote, Vinny.” In order to fend off his exhaustion and sense of increasing impotence (in several senses), Frank decides to kill Bertolo and, knowing full well it will mean his own death, he arranges for its proper scene and setting. That Frank feels trapped between la santa mama and his own duty to family is visually suggested in the scene after his subterranean meeting with Peppino and the other old-time Mafiosi: he walks silently down an esplanade, bordered on one side by a row of benches and on the other by a wrought-iron fence and the drop-off to the dockyards below. The camera starts from a high-angle-view and moves down, bringing the unbroken lines on either side into perspectival prominence, emphasizing the sense of entrapment.
Visconti’s film has this theme of exhaustion and longing for death as its centerpiece. In an extended conversation with a representative of the new Italian government, Cavalier Chevelley, Don Fabrizio expounds upon the miasma of weariness and death that surrounds him. He knows that he straddles two worlds and finds himself ill-at-ease in both. He says, “Sleep, a long sleep, that is what Sicilians want.” And to explicate: “Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is death once again.” And, like Frank, he sees these qualities as inherent in the very nature of Sicily: the splendor of the natural environment and “the squalor and filth of the streets…one is derived from the other.”
The long and intricate ball sequence which concludes the film (aside from a brief epilogue) provides another iteration of this theme. Physically worn and exhausted, Don Fabrizio seeks solitude in the library and finds himself confronted with a painting, which he proceeds to examine at length. The Lampedusa novel identifies the painting as “Death of a Just Man” by the 18th century French genre painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Like Fabrizio, Greuze lived at the end of an era (the Ancien Regime) and his painting stands in for the death of an entire way of life, which is not lost on Fabrizio. He wonders aloud to Tancredi and Angelica how his death will compare. “The linen will be less impeccable. The sheets of the dying are always so filthy. It’s to be hoped the girls will be more decently dressed. But I think it will be more or less the same.” This calls to his mind the necessity of repairs to the family tomb. That is, Fabrizio wants his death to be proper: clean and acceptable and contributing to the improvement of his property. Thereby he seeks to banish thoughts of filth and waste and the many indecencies of lust and sensuality.
These thoughts are reinforced when, later in the sequence, after washing up, he confronts the literal waste of his class. The shot is perfectly balanced between the opulence and extravagance of the bathroom, with its décor and appurtenances, and the multitudinous vessels full to brimming with ordure. Between these two worlds Don Fabrizio stands, still discomforted in either. As the ball winds down (and it does indeed come to signify entropy and decay), the floors are strewn with litter and guests sprawl in various states of collapse.
Fabrizio decides to walk home. On the way, he encounters a priest hurrying to a home to deliver Last Rites. He stops and kneels. Gazing up at the heavens (he is an amateur astronomer, a fact more hinted at in the film than developed in the book), he notices the morning star, Venus. Traditionally, Venus has been said to possess two aspects: the celestial (signifying perfect and eternal beauty) and the terrestrial (best summarized by the adjective “venereal”). Don Fabrizio has given his life to the pursuit of both, but now exhausted and weary, he importunes the celestial Venus: “O faithful star, when will you give me an appointment less ephemeral, far from all of this, in your own region of perennial certitude?” The terrestrial revolution (“Everything must change, so that things may stay the same”) is abandoned, traduced even, for the terms of celestial revolution: perfect, perennial, eternal.
Elsewhere, that lesser revolution (Garibaldini executed as deserters) ends with a bang, and Don Calogero mutters: “Just what was needed…for Sicily. We can rest easy now.” Longing for sleep and cessation overwhelms all the characters. Don Fabrizio walks off into the darkness. THE END looms.