In the Godfather trilogy, there is a direct relationship between how many movies a character appears in and how central he or she is to the plot. Michael, Connie, and Kay, all principle characters, are in all three movies, while secondary characters like Archbishop Gliday or Senator Geary appear in only a single film. Of course, such a structure makes sense. The plot follows the most significant characters, while the less significant die or are forgotten. But every rule has its exceptions. In the Godfather trilogy, one such exception is the insignificant, little-known Don Tommasino. Tommasino appears in every movie because he is Vito’s and Michael’s host and friend in Sicily, the island of Vito’s birth to which characters return in every film. In the Godfather films, Don Tommasino may be a minor character, but Sicily is not.
In The Godfather, our first view of Sicily is a wide-angle shot of a hilly countryside. The day is sunny and beautiful, and the landscape, though rocky, seems uncorrupted by any signs of modern life. Even the characters, many of them dressed like peasants, appear as if they were from the past. The impression, which is repeated by the initial shots of Sicily in The Godfather Part II and Part III, is of a pastoral paradise where a life of innocence is possible. Indeed, Sicily is always more than just a quaint Italian island—it is a symbol of a different life, a place of escape. In The Godfather, Michael goes to Sicily to escape the Mafia war sure to follow his killing of Sollozzo. In Part II and Part III, the return to Sicily is associated with more metaphorical notions of escape. In Part II, Sicily is the place of Vito’s brief innocence, his childhood. In Part III, it is a place of art, site of the opera house where Anthony will make his debut.
In all three films, the real Sicily fails to live up to this mythic image. The true Sicily is no paradise, but a place haunted by blood feuds and barbaric violence. In fact, every Sicilian journey culminates in a dramatic act of violence: the killing of Apollonia in The Godfather, the death of Vito’s entire family at the beginning of Part II, the subsequent revenge killing of Don Ciccio later in the film, and the murder of Mary in Part III. Ironically, it is the Corleones’ failure to escape from, rather than to, Sicily that prevents them from leaving their violent past behind. After all, Sicily, despite its rural charms and enticing vistas, is still the ancestral home of the Mafia.
Family gatherings in the Godfather trilogy are just as much about business as they are about pleasure. In the Godfather films, the word “family” refers to family in the traditional sense, but also to family in the uniquely Mafia sense (i.e. crime family). For this reason, Mafia family gatherings, whether for a festive party or solemn funeral, always involve backroom schmoozing. Deals are made, hits are ordered, respect is exchanged, honor is shown, and fights are initiated or resolved. All three films open with large gatherings, each of which begins with a large gathering for a formal occasion: The Godfather with Connie and Carlo’s wedding, The Godfather Part II with Anthony’s communion, and The Godfather Part III with the award ceremony for the medal of the Order of St. Sebastian. In the parties that follow, there is always a good deal of dancing, singing, and drunken revelry, but the mafiosi seem most interested in conducting “business.” The plot of each film is determined during these mid-party backroom sessions. Later, subsequent family gatherings are important occasions for resolving plot strands. In The Godfather, for instance, Michael learns that Tessio is a traitor at Vito’s funeral and has the heads of the five families killed during Carlo and Connie’s son’s baptism. In Part II, Michael and Fredo have a temporary reconciliation at Mama Corleone’s funeral. And in Part III, the pope and Archbishop Gliday and his associates are killed and Mary is killed by a bullet intended for Michael after Anthony’s opera performance.
Michael, Vito, and the rest of the Corleone family may be criminals, but they seem cleaner than many of the public officials they encounter throughout the trilogy. Each of the films presents at least one character in a position of power who is not only thoroughly corrupt, but also ugly, crass, and duplicitous. In The Godfather, Sergeant McCluskey is a police officer who doubles as a bodyguard for the drug trafficker Sollozzo. In Part II, Senator Pat Geary tries to extort money; spews bigoted, anti-Italian invectives; and frequents whorehouses. In Part III, Archbishop Gliday, as head of the Vatican bank, has gotten involved in underhanded dealings with criminal elements and plays a part in their corrupt, illegal activities, including the assassination of the pope. From one movie to the next, these officials occupy more powerful and seemingly respected roles in society, and at the same time they grow uglier, more corrupt, and more sinister. While there are a few examples of well-intentioned public officials, most notably Cardinal Lamberto, who becomes Pope John Paul I, the examples of corrupt public officials are more numerous. By comparison, the protagonists of the Godfather trilogy emerge as morally complex figures. Placed beside Senator Geary in a lineup, Michael, even at his most ruthless, would appear a sympathetic figure.