What Does This Movie Mean? — The Godfather’s Oranges
I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about all those oranges in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. It’s a topic that’s been copiously discussed by viewers and critics, but I still feel that there is something left to say about it. Specifically, it’s the question of “why oranges” that really fascinates me.
So let us begin.
It’s a well-known fact that oranges represent mortal danger in The Godfather world. Vito Corleone buys oranges just before he is ambushed, and a cascade of oranges spills onto the sidewalk as he is shot. At the end of the first film, he cuts up an orange minutes before his death. Sonny Corleone passes a large billboard advertising orange juice just before being gunned down at a tollbooth. Every scene showing a mafia conference has oranges in it somewhere. Every mafia figure is shown handling an orange at some point — usually just before a violent scene. And at the end of it all, in the last scene of the last Godfather movie, Michael Corleone drops an orange at the moment of death. None of this is a revelation.
But … why oranges? Why not strawberries, or persimmons, or bananas? Or, if — as many critics over the decades have suggested — the trilogy is about America’s disturbing legacy of violence (which I don’t think it is), why not use some iconic representation of America’s purity, like apples? The long and short of it is that I think The Godfather saga is less about what immigrants find in America and more about what they bring into it. Like oranges, of course. They bring oranges.
The 1972 film begins with undertaker Bonasera , framed by darkness, speaking directly into the camera:
I believe in America. America has made my fortune.
This is the part where a lot of smart brains short-circuit, because (as much as I hate to use a cliche), to a hammer, everything looks like a nail: aha! this movie is about the evils of capitalism! But no, that’s not what the movie is about — not really. Because what’s truly significant in Bonasera’s soliloquy comes next:
And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but — I taught her never to dishonor her family.
This, of course, is a contradiction. The most brutal bonds in human history, short of outright slavery, are those imposed by so-called “family honor”. You can’t simultaneously be free and yet abide by those ancient Mediterranean strictures. If your liberty is subject to family honor, it’s no liberty at all. This is the very contradiction that’s at the root of what will plague the Corleones for more than half a century; because all the violence we see on the screen has at least as much to do with score-settling as with making a buck (which is why it isn’t really about capitalism).
I sense that, because I am myself an immigrant, The Godfather trilogy speaks to me in a way that it doesn’t to most viewers.
A few months before our family was scheduled to leave the Soviet Union, my parents had a fight. It was one of the bad ones, with screaming, pushing, shoving and a few slaps in front of the terrified kids. Afterwards, my father sheepishly begged my mother’s forgiveness. He said he was sorry, that he would never, ever do this again. He reminded her, eloquently and passionately, that they were about to embark on the greatest adventure of their lives, one that would ultimately make everything better; that they were going to start a new life in the West, leave all this drudgery and bickering behind; essentially be reborn as soon as we crossed the border. After being silent for a long time, my mother uttered perhaps the most profound thing I have ever heard anyone say. She said: “We can leave everything behind, except ourselves.”
Time would prove her right.
The Godfather saga is in many ways a distillation of the immigrant experience. People come to America to be free. Perhaps some of you reading this are wincing at the preceding sentence as some simplistic flag-waiving bullshit; but if you’ve read my other entries, you know me better than that. And what I said is true. I know it, because it’s a universal truth, something that is true of all immigrants, everywhere. Whenever an individual, or a family, picks up, leaves everything and everyone they’ve ever known behind and moves to a completely different place, it is to be free. When a country kid moves to a big city, it’s to be free. When a jaded stockbroker quits his job and sells his condo and goes to live on a farm, it’s to be free. When Americans move to other countries, when foreigners move to America, when people go to live in quiet outposts lost in the tropics, or in the Arctic, when they leave their sleepy hometowns to blend into the myriad lights and the blessed anonymity of glimmering megapolises, the ultimate goal is freedom. That’s freedom from the past, not just their own, personal past, but also the collective past, the past of their parents and grandparents, the past of their teachers, mentors and colleagues. Alas, once they have escaped, they almost in spite of themselves start gravitating towards the old values they left behind, the very values that held up the existential confines they tried to escape in the first place. If you are new to a place, you are, and will always be, a transplant; and there is a very good chance — much better than most people who want to build a new life would be willing to admit — that you will come to identify yourself by what you most strongly associate with your birthplace. In the case of early twentieth-century Sicily, that, of course, would be Honor — the kind of Honor that cannot be upheld except with blood.
The formative event of Vito Andolini’s life is the massacre of his entire family back in Corleone and his own narrow escape to America. This happened because the elder Andolini crossed a local chieftain, but didn’t have the good sense to kill him. The point that The Godfather movies drive home again and again is a rule born out of this old life in the Old World (because of course, the idealized, romanticized version of life in the organized crime is reality seen through the eyes of the Corleones), that a conflict between two men isn’t resolved until one of them is dead. And so years later, when Don Fanucci zeroes in on Vito on the streets of the Lower East Side, Vito sure as hell isn’t going to repeat his father’s mistake. The Corleone rule of conflict resolution reigns in America; it is something that gets passed down to children and grand-children — the Old World persisting in the New. It is not a coincidence, then, that Vito’s last name is changed to Corleone at Ellis Island. He is Corleone anthropomorphised, a living personification of its customs, its values and its historical baggage.
One of the most remarkable things about Part II is how easily Vito Corleone becomes a criminal. One way to tell the story, of course, is that you have an upstanding young man, a humble grocery store clerk with a sweet wife and a couple of small kids, who suddenly finds himself without wages thanks to a neighborhood extortionist. So he turns to crime to pay the rent. That’s it in a nutshell. And yet … Vito slips into the life of crime with an incredible naturalness, almost as an afterthought. When Don Fanucci becomes a problem, Vito carries out his (presumably) first hit with surgical precision. There is no down time, no guilt, no doubt, no conflict. At no point does he seem troubled by the turn his life has taken. This is certainly a departure from the existentialist trope in which the anti-hero experiences a crisis of identity and a moral dilemma, and it’s one of those moments in The Godfather trilogy when Coppola’s genius is at its most brilliant. He doesn’t say what we have come to expect of dark family sagas, but he shows us exactly what needs to be conveyed. The existential question of who Vito Corleone really is was always settled. He is the personification of his birthplace. He was always meant to live the Corleone way, even in the New World. Being laid off from the grocery was not so much a formative event that turned him into a mafioso, as a catalyst.
If the formative event of Vito’s existence takes place in Italy, the pivotal moment of his adult life occurs in a theater. It is also no coincidence, of course (no lengthy scene in a movie of any quality is there just because) that The Godfather saga also ends with a play-within-a-play, a lengthy sequence in the foreground of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana — an opera significantly altered in the film in order to fit Coppola’s purposes. It is a nod to art being, in essence, a distillation of age-old stories of love, jealousy, ambition, revenge, and of course, family honor, stripped to their very basics. We watch those intertwined themes, distilled for us in a series of parables whose characters also watch theater pieces that depict their struggles condensed even further into a nearly schematic representation of conflict.
So back in New York circa 1917, Vito and his friend Genco are watching an Italian play in a ramshackle neighborhood theater, a story punctuated by ill-tuned instruments blaring a few bars of well-known Italian tunes at dramatic moments. The play depicts an immigrant from Naples ensconced in a typical shabby New York tenement and pining for his mother — who, unbeknownst to him, has died back in Italy. This is wonderful foreshadowing of how Vito’s own dead mother is about to reach for him from beyond the grave; and sure enough, it is in this scene that Vito meets Don Fanucci for the first time.
Like a true, classical epic, The Godfather saga is told starting in the middle. If you arrange its events in chronological order, however, the first time an orange appears (I think) is when Don Fanucci buys one on the street. In one of those small details that I especially love — and one that demonstrates just how complex Coppola’s symbolism is — after unfairly losing his job at the grocery store, Vito Corleone brings home a pear. But in a scene that comes almost immediately after the murder of Don Fanucci, we see him accepting a gift of oranges from a street vendor.
Oranges are, of course, strongly associated with the Mediterranean, and in this case, especially, Italy. Pears are associated with pretty much everywhere, and so the pear in Part II may represent Vito’s integration into his new home’s larger community, while oranges signal his withdrawal into the Sicilian underworld. More than anything, however, oranges represent the characters’ roots, their connection to the Old World, and how that connection is rife with violent death.
Every time I watch The Godfather movies, I marvel at Coppola’s choice of an object as bright, sunny and cheerful as the orange to represent something dark and ominous. To some extent, this is an esthetic choice, too. There is clearly a preference for dark, somber colors in all three films, which has the effect of emphasizing the oranges. And once Vito Corleone accepts who he really is (by accepting oranges from a vendor), oranges are everywhere like an invasive, parasitic growth. This is not a story of the New World’s failure to fulfill its promises to immigrants; this is a story about the Old World — its bloodbaths, its feudal past, its foreign dominations, its injustices, its internal conquests, its feuds and vendettas — unstoppably infecting the New. It’s about immigrants being able to leave everything behind, except themselves.
No matter what the characters do, Sicily retains its death grip over them. Or maybe it’s the other way around. After all, any one of the Corleones or their associates could just stop picking up oranges.
P.S. The Old World as a malevolent presence appears also, to great effect, in Vince Gilligan’s amazing series Breaking Bad. For the record, I haven’t rewatched the series specifically to catalogue the clues, but even on first viewing, it is fairly obvious what always looms in the background: Germany. Or, rather, the convolution of Germany and South America. We have such almost playful elements as a German conglomerate with a Spanish name, designing faux-Latin fast food and doing business, mostly of the illegal variety, with a biracial drug dealer who hails from South America but has a German name. Which means, of course, that on some level, it all goes back to the Nazis. (How fitting, then, that in the final season, the local drug trade is being dominated by a Neo-Nazi gang. Subtextually, it is the gang’s extermination, and the giving up of its blood wealth that ends the story — not Walter White’s death.)
Compared to Coppola’s Sicily, Gilligan’s Germany is a more atmospheric presence. For example, Gus Fring’s backstory is never explicitly revealed. However, the series drops just enough hints to give us an idea. The only flashback to Fring’s past, the beginning of his criminal career in the 1980’s, caused critics and viewers to completely flip out over the (possible) revelation that Fring is may be gay. I feel, however, that what Gilligan is doing with that scene is supply an important piece of information while creating a diversion — a hint at Fring’s possible homosexuality — to obscure it. True, the fact that Fring was once very close to someone, possibly even romantically involved, adds some depth to the character, but I would submit it’s a minor detail. Gilligan would not construct that whole flashback just to say that Fring is gay — especially since in Breaking Bad’s present, Fring is, for all intents and purposes, asexual. No, the hint at gayness diverts the viewer’s attention from what’s really important — the revelation that Fring was very wealthy before he ever got into the drug trade. We are also told that there is no paper trail attesting to Fring’s existence or whereabouts prior to the 1980’s. So where was he born? Where did he grow up? And where does his wealth come from?
As I’ve stated, nothing about Fring’s past is concrete, but one possibility that emerges from the sparse clues the series drops is that he is a child or a grandchild of an escaped Nazi war criminal who settled in South America after World War II — hence his German name, and his connections back in Germany. He may have grown up on a compound or (being of mixed race) otherwise in hiding, which explains why there are no records to trace back to his childhood and birth. His initial wealth, then, is derived from Nazi atrocities in Europe — homes looted, art stolen, valuables taken off slaughtered victims before they were dumped into mass graves.
In the flashback, Fring appears as a somewhat idealistic young man who wants to have a nice drug business. This is an unrealistic desire as a matter of plot, because Fring wants to sell drugs, not cupcakes, and other drug dealers are as far from “nice” as could possibly be. And as a matter of subtext, he cannot have a nice drug business because the money that lays the foundation for his empire is cursed. That the money is cursed is also the reason why that bountiful harvest Fring eventually collects tastes so bitter: he lives alone; he can have only a modest house; he drives a boring car; neither human companionship nor the joys of wealth are allowed him. All those millions of dollars later (not to mention the countless lives and the interminable struggles with the worst dregs of humanity), his life is dreary and cold. The wealth his ancestors stole will never bring anyone security or happiness: not Fring, not the Whites, not Linda, not the Neo-Nazis.
It makes perfect symbolic sense, then, that in the end, the money circles back to the Nazis (the new generation now) and is effectively buried with them. So, on the level of the subtext, this is a perfect ending in the style of a Shakespearean tragedy: the curse is locked away and the universe is restored to order.