The Godfather: Part I (1972)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
When death visits the family…
: Scene Analysis – from the Death of Don Vito Corleone to his Funeral Ceremony
“Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” – Don Vito Corleone (The Godfather: Part I, 1972)
It seems very strange if someone shakes his head negatively and says that he doesn’t know the existence of the film “The Godfather”, as well as the Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Trilogy, because these epic stories , especially the first part, have totally stormed the American continent, and all around the world in the following period after it was firstly launched in 1972. The film “The Godfather” was very outstanding in that period according its anti-Hollywood cliché theme and content, by presenting the different style of gangster film through the distinctively visual and contextual elements which are outstandingly and directly noticeable among the worldwide audience, and lead them to understand literally the thematic message while they are appreciating and involving themselves into the life, business and violence of Corleone Family, the protagonists.
As we have all known about the director, Francis Ford Coppola, through his fame in directing of distinctive works such as Apocalypse Now (1979), The Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or his latest film Tetro (2009), he made such a big impact in Hollywood as soon as his “The Godfather part I” was lauched in cinemas, this film was absolutely impressed in worldwide, noticed by the positive feedbacks from film critics and audiences. Coppola used the richness of visualisation and also the well-designed plot driving us, the audience, into the illegal and violent world of Corleone Family, by narrating the story through the protagonists who don the leading position of family business which can be seperated in three generations; Don Vito, the founder of Corleone family, Santino, Don Vito’s first son, and Michael, his third son. In each period, there are plenty of highly-regarded scenes, especially in the aesthetic way of presenting and chanting its story, we can see those scenes through which the director used for describing the small pieces of puzzles that tell us more about the story of Corleone Family in a very intellectual method.
In this paper, there will be a presentation of scene analysis in this “The Godfather”, focusing on selected scenic moments in the first episode or “The Godfather: Part I” of this trilogy serie; the Death of Don Vito Corleone and his funeral. These continuous events in film are absolutely rich in its content, visually and thematically and, in the meantime, there are some visual aspects which we can use these scenes as an example to study more about this film’s story and also the way that Francis Ford Coppola, the director, created the impressively narrated story which positively attracts the mind of audiences from many countries and generations for all times, eventhough the film, itself, might present the immorality or misbehaviours such as illegal business, mafioso organisation, as well as the violence used to solve any problems of protagonists since Don Vito to his chair successor, Michael Corleone. So we may willingly enjoy this fascinating journey and stick ourselves to the seat, the screen as well, to see what will happen with Corleone Family and their businesses at the end of film.
The Death of Don Vito Corleone Scene
In this scene, there are two characters presented which are Don Vito Corleone, who has retired himself from the “Don” position, and his beloved young nephew, Anthony Corleone, the son of Michael and Kay. The scene takes its place in an orange garden inside the area of the Corleone house, where we can see that Don Vito and Anthony are spending their warm and sunny afternoon together. This scene is really surprising because we can see the ex-don, Don Vito, who once ruled all the Corleone mafioso family, totally quitting his leading position in that mafia business, or as known as “Nostra Costra” in Sicilian-Italian term, and spend his times taking good care of his biological family, especially with his future business successor Anthony. This seems to be a very nice and adorable scenic image as an ideal family, a grandfather playing with his tiny nephew, two generations being and sharing their lives together. But however, unfortunately, this turns to be the last moment of this old man’s life. Although this looks really dramatised, it represents the ideological concept about the family, that every member should be together, caring for each other during their life.
Throughout the scene, we can notice, for all times, that Don Vito is trying to teach his young nephew to realise his original identity, which is absolutely not American, but Sicilian, himself. As we all know that Sicily is Mediterranean island, governed as an autonomous region of Italy. Moreover, Sicily is widely known as a major productive and export region of Mediterranean agriculture fresh products such as citrus fruits, olives and famous Sicilian oranges due to its fertile soil and tropical climate, therefore there is a very long period of hot growing season in this region which really matches with these Mediterranean plants to grow. So this plant, oranges, and so does the orange garden as well, are used by the director as a reflection of Sicily and Sicilian identity of these characters. In the beginning part of this scene, Don Vito is teaching Anthony to water orange trees, if we consider these orange trees as a symbol presenting the Sicily, this action is able to be translated that he is trying to persuade his nephew into the Sicilian route and to install this thought about original identity in Anthony’s mind since he is a child to dispatch this nationally identical heritage to his heir, not only for Corleone Family’s existence, but also their dark side business.
The character of Don Vito in this scene is obviously changed from the first period of the film, as he was in charge of the Don’s chair in the office. Though, in that room, we see him as a violent, cruel and cold-blooded person, on contrary he is also a warm husband, father and grandfather. In his final scene of life, after taking a role of a monster, chasing his grandson, Anthony, he dies suddenly in that small orange garden near their family’s house. This place seems like a exact place to die for Don Vito Corleone, as it has been mentioned in the previous paragraph that oranges may signify the Sicily region, therefore we can understand before he, Don Vito, starts choking and throwing himself on the ground, Anthony has asked him “where are you”, which is the last diction he can ever talk to his grandfather. This Anthony’s interrogative sentence is possibly implied that he is asking about Don Vito’s homeland and where he and his Corleone Family ideologically are, so his death, in the following shot, is the right answer he decides to tell his nephew that this place under the shadow of orange trees is their most appreciating place to live and also to die. Therefore Don Vito’s death happens in this orange garden, this seems that he finally ends his life on the simulated ground of Sicily which maintains symbolically his truthfulness in his Sicilian-Italian identity. So in the last scene after Anthony’s disappearance from the scene, the director intends to leave his body alone on the garden ground in the center of the frame, there are only those orange trees, the symbol of Sicily, who are witnessing his death, while the Mediterranean breeze is blowing gently through his body, carrying this great Sicilian soul to his warm and sunny homeland.
The Don Vito’s Funeral Scene
This scene is the sequel part of the Don Vito’s death scene. From that scene, Coppola leaves the last shot, as a long shot, focusing on the orange garden which we can see his dead body lying peacefully on the ground through bushes and shadows of these trees. Immediately, he turns his frame into another scene by softly fading the previous frame and slowly merging the orange garden picture into the cemetery gate where people come to Don Vito’s funeral. The first thing that we must notice after dissolving these frames is that there is a giant Christian cross and two angel statues at the front of this cemetery. This cross is put in the center of the picture, exactly the same position as Don Vito’s body in the previous scene, so it seems like the director wants to insist his thought about Sicilian identity and their homeland in which Don Vito’s soul may rest in peace, visually in that orange garden, signifying Sicily and comparing it as a sacred place, especially for Sicilians who abandoned their maternal land and have been seeking for their fortune in America, a remote land. Lastly, the most desirable thing for Don Vito is being close to his Sicilian ground, surrounded by his beloved members of biological family, in this land where the Christian cross is standing at the front, as well as two angels, guarding them, he may perfectly and eternally rest himself as the land of God.
However, this cemetery seems very close to American city center, because we can see cars passing on the expressway which is presented as a scenic background when funeral guest’ cars are entering the cemetery gate and heading right to the Don Vito’s grave. This look like a message from Don Corleone to tell his successor, also his family, to keep digging for prosperity in this land of freedom, but do remind that never forget who they originally are.
Among the graves in this cemetery, Don Vito’s grave is seemingly outstanding through its height and its elegance by the angel sculptures decorated on the gigantic gravestone in order to express the power of Don Vito, himself, and also of his family. Similarly to any other scenes, the idea of “family” is always appearing in this moment. In the funeral scene, we might notice the gravestone and those decorated sculptures, the adult angel surrounding by three little angels, which represent symbolically the Corleone Family, Don Vito and his three sons; Santino, Fredo and Michael. In this shot, Coppola intends to pose the adult angel sculpture looking on the right side of frame, where Corleone Family are all sitting in that position. The angel seems to look especially for Michael, according to his center-framed position, this means although Don Vito has passed away but his though and way of living are still existing deeply in each family member, and in the same time, he puts his trust on his last son, Michael, as his “Don” chair successor to maintain these two family; biological and Mafiosi, to reach the proper destination for which he had always expected.
Moreover, in this scene, it is really surprising that Fredo, the second son, does not appear himself in the scene. This character’s disappearance means that Coppola needs to suggest the audience that Fredo is very weak and does not deserve to Coleone Family, as he wept like a woman as soon as seeing his father being shot by enemies or he took Moe Greene’s side instead of Michael, who reflects his Corleone Family, during business negotiation in Las Vegas. After all these weak and ignorant presentation, Fredo is gradually becoming the outsider of his own biological family, which leads him to death at the end of The Godfather: Part II.
During the funeral ceremony, there are a lot of crowned coming to pay his respect to his beloved Don, we can see they are bringing a stalk of red rose to drop upon his grave. In the early part of The Godfather Part I, we see Don Vito wearing his black suit, on that suit there is a red rose attached, on his daughter, Connie’s wedding day. These roses are standing for his Italian identity which is semiotised by the Il Tricolore Italian national flag; red, white and green, exactly the same as the colours of these roses, which have its green leaves, red blossom and white pollen. Therefore, red roses are used in this scene by those guests to pay respect to Don Vito.
In the scene, we see Michael Corleone talking to Tom Hagen about who, between Clemenza and Tessio, is the traitor of their family business. According to the last scene we see Don Vito and Michael together before his death, he warned Michael to be careful of the man who comes to him in Barzini meeting, that one is the traitor of family, which is later revealed that it is Tessio. So in this scene, visually, Coppola hides his hint about this, Emilio Barzini comes and places his rose upon the grave, then the camera moves to capture Michael’s face. After that we see Barzini talking and shaking his hands to men in black suit, the camera goes back to Michael again for the second time, and then finally the frame returns to Barzini’s position. In this moment, we can notice that Sal Tessio is walking straight from the back of Barzini, the enemy, in order to talk about the meeting arrangement with Michael, not like Peter Clemenza, Johnny Fontane or others veteran menber of mafioso organisation. This way of opening Tessio’s appearance in the funeral is indirectly presenting that he, Tessio, is obviously from the enemy’s side, so we can know that he is the family’s traitor. In addition, all entire the funeral, we, the audience, never see Tessio placing his rose on the Don Vito’s grave, neither look or participate with Don Vito and other Corleone Family’s member, except Michael. This Tessio’s action is supporting the previous visual element that Coppola really wants to reveal his betraying indirectly through this character’s presentation in the scene.
These scenes are only examples for presenting the value, especially in aesthetics, of which Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part I is really praised by audiences from all over the world. Every single scene of this film, also others parts, is well designed and rich by the contextual aspects which have been waiting to be interpreted; such as the Baptism scene which is able to say that this scene is totally his master-piece work, and also the great filming work of all time. With his perfect combination, by using the paradoxical elements, such as Christianity and violence, teaming with the film technical method, especially the montage like the rapidly cross-cuttings or juxtaposing shots between two situations, which exactly the same as these two selected sequences. Coppola uses these outstanding aspects to create the alternative visual presentation through his film which not only tells the story but also states the thematic message, and in the same time develops audiences’ emotions, leading them directly to the world of Corleone Family’s business, facing and solving conflicts together with these protagonists. So we could possibly say that from these special elements, for instant in these two scenes, Francis Ford Coppola has finally elevated his work into another level of film making which can describe literally that the hidden context can be driven mutually with entertainment.
Lastly, according to its artistic and aesthetic value, it is able to say that this film is really good example as a intellectual text for studying film by looking at its signification in the way it is shot or created, also its strong aesthetic aspects in film which all present that this film, The Godfather: Part I, is superb in its plot planning, impressive theme and also distinctive mise-en-scènes which make it well famous and one becoming one of the best films ever made in the history.