The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Lessons Learned from The Godfather

Posted on | February 12, 2010 | Written by Janice Cable | 3 Comments

There’s a lot to love—and to hate—about Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. (I remember when it first aired on television in the ‘70s with a disclaimer written by Coppola himself; in light of shows like Jersey Shore, the disclaimer now seems almost quaint.) There’s no denying that—even despite its rather dismal third installment—this trilogy stands as one of film’s greatest triumphs. And for good reason: it might be that the Godfather Trilogy is the Great American Novel of cinema. I can’t think of another movie that so completely encapsulates what it means to be American, its messiness, its beauty, its melancholy, its joy, its achievements and its failures. These films are grand, sweeping epics in the best, most sepia-tinted, nostalgia-laden sense of the word.

And yet. In the glory, gore, pomp, and pop culture that the films have offered up, in all the beauty that is Michael’s thousand-yard stare, the horror of severed heads and exploding eyeballs, the funereal dirge and many rolling oranges, there is one extended scene that so stands apart from the rest of the films as to seem as if it came from some other, languorous movie. It’s Vito Corleone’s garden death scene.

It is, of course, a scene whose placement illustrates the genius of The Godfather. It comes just after Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone sit framed like two Janus faces, these backward and forward-looking sides of the same coin, just after Vito has dispensed halting, repetitive—and invaluable—advice to his son and his heir.  And it comes just before Vito’s funeral, and the moment when Michael discovers the weight of his father’s advice.

The garden scene—unscripted, unrehearsed, unplanned, and unbelievably gorgeous—sits like a siesta in the movie. It’s so simple, really, so real and so sweet. Vito is in the garden with his grandson. The lawn and the trees and the tomato plants glow verdant. The sun glints off a carafe of wine. Vito cuts an orange, and shares it with the child. He places a wedge in his mouth so that the rind glows like freaky orange teeth, and he growls. The child screams, Vito pops out the rind and laughs. The child understands it’s all a game, and they chase each other beneath the towering tomato plants, hung with diaphanous netting to shield them from the sun.The Garden Scene

It’s all so rich you can smell the acrid twang of the tomatoes, the zing of the citrus, the green bite of cut grass. Cicadas buzz in the background, giving the film’s omnipresent violins a well-deserved rest.

The interesting thing about this scene is that as much as it enacts what Vito has experienced every day of his gangster life, it also dispels it. The child runs after his grandfather with a homemade watering can in his hand. He pumps the can’s action, shooting streams of water at his grandfather’s back. He cackles, “Ah, ah, ah,” and Vito amiably runs before him, playing. Then he stops, he clutches his heart, he grabs for plants, he topples over, and he crashes to the ground. He is dead. Vito has not escaped the hordes who have chased him with guns, but yet he also has.

The anchor for this scene for me sits in the lines he shares with Michael in the scene that precedes it.

“I like to drink wine more than I used to,” he says. “Anyway, I’m drinking more.”

“It’s good for you, Pop,” Michael responds.

As Don, Vito couldn’t let his guard down. One imagines an abstemious lifestyle, all those cigars and occasional toasts aside. However, having given over his reins to Michael, his unlikely heir and yet the one of his three sons most like himself, Vito can relax; he can drink; he can sit in the sun and enjoy his grandson; and he can live and die on his own terms.

In these days of wretched if waning winter, I like to watch this summer scene. Its bittersweet glory reminds me of what’s important. There is work, but also there is also relaxation, love, family, fun and the enjoyment of drinking. After all, Michael is right: wine is good for you.


3 Responses to “Lessons Learned from The Godfather”

  1. Kerry-Jo
    February 12th, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    love this!!

  2. Janice
    February 12th, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    Thanks so much, Kerry-Jo. I started writing it last November when The Godfather was being played on an endless loop on FX over Thanksgiving weekend.

    “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Words to live by.

  3. Kerry-Jo
    February 16th, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    i always get hungry when i see the guys making sauce in the first movie.

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