by Paul Batters
“Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. If your car could take me to the airport. Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately”. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)
Food plays a central role in societies and cultures across the world. It has powerful, symbolic meaning, as well as being a necessity of life. Whatever meaning food has will be shaped by the significance we attach to it. The gathering of people to share in a feast or a meal has been engaged in since time immemorial, often acting as ritual for a vast array of reasons from religious to celebratory to turning points in one’s life. The central ritual in many celebrations will be the sitting down to eat a prepared meal. It becomes intimate, accepting and enhances the connection between friendship and family.
How many wonderful moments have there been in film, where food has played this role – be it families gathering for Christmas lunch or Thanksgiving dinner, feasts in banquet halls or a romantic dinner. As an audience, these moments evoke vivid memories, which find themselves deeply imbedded in the experience of sharing food, from everyday moments to special events. But food in film can symbolise darker elements as well.
And the symbolism of food in Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, certainly boasts that achievement. As Vasna Jagarnath states in the Nov 23, 2013 edition of ‘The Con’, ‘food is used to comfort a friend, to welcome a child, to evoke memories and announce death’.
The significance of food in The Godfather is often overlooked and understated. David Sutton and Peter Wogan in Hollywood Blockbusters (2009) make the point that in The Godfather, food symbolises identity, honour, family and accomplishment. For the Corleone family, these are important values that shape who they are and thus need to be adhered to. But as we will see, food in The Godfather also signifies dark omens and even death.
The film opens with the wedding of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando); a celebration held with all the Sicilian traditions, which means good food, music and shared joy. As Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) points out to his wife, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. As a result, Nazorine the baker asks the Don for help, marking an exchange that defines their relationship, with the baker providing a towering wedding cake for the couple gratis. When singer and godson to Don Vito, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks help, Don Vito uncharacteristically gets angry and yells at him to ‘act like a man’, later adding when his anger subsides that only a ‘family man’ can call himself a ‘real man’. After all, a family man provides and puts food on the table. He then embraces him stating ‘I want you to eat’, indicating that home-cooked food will ease his troubles – the food symbolising love and closeness of family. Other references to food speak volumes. Michael (Al Pacino) asks his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) if she likes her lasagne, indicating that true enjoyment of the wedding is focused on how good the food is. Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of the Don’s top men, juggles an orange whilst sitting at his table – an ominous sign of what is to come for him.
We also see the act of sitting down to eat as a time when business is done. When Tom Hagen goes to see studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to discuss Johnny Fontane’s career, he is invited to Woltz’s home, where they sit at a large table set for a sumptuous meal. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, also symbolises the deep divide between the worlds of these two men. Woltz loses his temper, telling Hagen to ‘get the hell out of there’ showing little of the supposed intelligence and control that a powerful man in business is supposed to possess. Maintaining his composure, Tom Hagen thanks Woltz for the nice dinner and leaves, without making any threats. The intimacy of sitting together to eat and the trust in sharing food as a sign of friendship becomes severely broken. Jack Woltz will later discover the extent of the Corleone family’s power in one of the most infamous scenes in cinema history.
As Sutton and Wogan point out, the way business is done in the world of La Cosa Nostra and indeed in the wider world is one of a ‘gift economy’. Whether its’ a deal over union control, a contract in the world of entertainment or a corporate meeting, there is an exchange which means goodwill, trust, agreement and decision-making. The raising of glasses and sharing of drinks is also symbolic of this exchange.
Food as a marker or announcement of death is prevalent in the film. The presence of oranges as harbingers specifically has been oft spoken about; despite the film’s production designer Dean Tavoularis stating that there is no symbolic meaning to the presence of oranges. Tavoularis is on record as saying that in a film with darker tones and sombre sets, oranges provided a nice contrast in colour and work well against the lighting. But you can judge for yourself. During the Woltz – Hagen meeting, there are oranges on the table close to Woltz. When Don Vito is shot at the start of the film, he is purchasing oranges on the street, which will then spill out across the road as he stumbles towards his car, whilst catching bullets from the hitmen. During the big meeting with the Five Bosses, oranges are carefully placed near the two Dons, Tattaglia and Barzini, who have plotted against the Corleone Family and will face a violent ending. And as already mentioned Tessio, the trusted caporegime, is seen during the wedding scene, sitting at a table picking an orange from a bowl.
Later in the film, the death of Don Vito, while not violent will see him with an orange. Now retired and growing tomatoes in his garden, he plays with his grandson, and starts cutting an orange. Using the rind, he places it in his mouth and starts making faces, which for a moment scares his grandson. Not long after, as the two play, chasing each other amongst the tomato plants, Don Vito suffers a massive heart attack and dies. It is a poignant and powerfully symbolic scene – the tomatoes representing both richness and the old country, with a powerful man leaving behind his previous life and returning to his peasant roots. Yet as Jagarnath also suggests, the old Don growing tomatoes is symbolic of his preparing for the future, assuring his family will have plenty for the future after he has gone. The presence of his grandson also is indicative of those future generations which he is caring for, further exemplified by their playing amongst the tomato plants. Incidentally, Marlon Brando improvised the whole scene. The trick with the orange was one he had used with his own children and he also encouraged the boy playing his grandson to run through the tomato plants. To Coppola’s credit, he let Brando do his thing and captured a wonderful moment on film.
Additionally, the method by which the Corleone Family receives the news that their greatest weapon, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) has been murdered also provided the film with one of popular culture’s greatest lines. A package arrives with Luca’s body armour and inside some fresh fish. The ‘Sicilian message’ is clear as well as chilling and haunting that ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’.
One of the most celebrated scenes in the film involves the hit on turncoat soldier Paulie Gatto. It is a scene which perfectly depicts the typical Mob hit, at least in terms of attitude. Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) arranges the hit, with Rocco Lampone pulling the trigger and ‘making his bones’. The lead up shows the usual approach – lulling the victim into a sense of assurance, acting casual and then finally committing the act. Paulie’s bloodied face stares lifeless as it lays on the steering wheel and Clemenza utters perhaps the second most famous line in the film; ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’. The classic Sicilian sweet holds more importance than a man’s life but more importantly it becomes a device to show the cold, business-like approach that Mafia takes when dealing with problems. It is a chilling and memorable scene.
The reporting of Paulie’s demise occurs during a moment when the jovial Clemenza teases Michael Corleone about a phone-call from Kay. It is then that he invites Michael to the stove to show him how to cook spaghetti sauce. It’s a warm and close moment, as a group of men sit behind Clemenza in the kitchen eating. Yet a moment later, Sonny (James Caan) the acting boss walks in and asks Clemenza about Paulie, to which Clemenza nonchalantly replies ‘Oh Paulie, we won’t see him no more”. Despite being murderers and dangerous men, the scene also shows Clemenza, and by extension Don Vito, as being nurturers and providers, looking after their families and those who are close to them. They do so through the traditional food which they provide; prepared with care and love, and coming from old recipes from their homeland. In Harlan Lebo’s outstanding book ‘The Godfather Legacy’ (2005), Coppola has stated that he added the scene to give everyone a ‘great tomato sauce’. It is one of those touches the great directors added, to give the film greater authenticity and cultural identity. Similar touches can be found elsewhere in the film. During a meeting between Don Vito, his eldest boy Sonny (James Caan) and Tom Hagen, a bottle of home made anisette, made by Coppola himself from his father’s recipe, sits on a table near Don Vito. Whilst the Corleone men sit around planning murder, they sit around eating Chinese food – evoking a personal memory for Coppola because his ‘father liked Chinese food’. It may not connect for the audience as authentic, but the fact that it does for the director does make the scene authentic to his sensibilities and his shaping of the film’s ‘bigger picture’.
Perhaps the most important scene in the movie is the killing of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Letierri) and Sgt. McClusky (Sterling Hayden) by Michael Corleone. The symbolism of food and dining in this scene is layered with complexities. Earlier during the planning, Sonny announces that the meeting place is Louie’s Restaurant, The Bronx. Immediately, Tessio approves the choice for its’ good food and the implication that Michael will meet with Sollozzo and McClusky is that they will eat together as they speak. Again, the sharing of food also implies trust but in this case it will mark death. In the restaurant, Sollozzo echoes Tessio’s earlier approval telling McClusky to ‘try the veal, it’s the best in the city’. As Sollozzo and Michael speak, his mind turns over what is to come. When the moment arrives, despite all the audience’s prior knowledge, we are shocked at the suddenness and the intimate explicitness of that moment. There is an almost comic moment where McClusky, fork filled with veal mid-air, cops a bullet in the throat and then the head, before pitching forward and upsetting the table. The significance of this moment cannot be understated – Michael had declared throughout his life that he never wanted any part of his father’s business. His committing murder is a betrayal of himself. Regardless of what has unfolded, Michael is now forever set on a path he can never turn around, no matter what he tries. The upturned table represents the life of Michael Corleone and the family also upturned, with further problems to come.
Upturned tables also feature in the sad marriage of Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). Beating her regularly and treating her terribly, Connie tries to be the dutiful wife. As a ‘good wife’ in the Sicilian tradition, she cooks in the same way her mother does, setting the table and telling her ingrate husband that dinner is on the table. For Connie, the set table with cooked dinner represents her understanding of a home and stability, fulfilling her duties as a wife. Carlo’s indifference as he gets ready to go out and meet his mistress, will then follow into one of the film’s most disturbing and ugliest scenes, as Connie loses her composure and begins to ruin the set table. The domesticity of the home breaks into unfettered violence, as Carlo begins to beat his pregnant wife. The normal promise of food on the table symbolising a loving home has been broken for Connie and adds further tragedy to the story of the Corleone Family.
The Godfather was never a ‘gangster film’ nor is it a crime drama. Its’ endurance is that it is a film about a family who happen to be in the Mafia. Brando also believed that the film was the representation of the American Dream and capitalism at its’ very core. The Corleone Family may be gangsters but they are still a family shaped by Sicilian traditions in place for generations. Food is a key tradition because it brings family together and becomes the link between those generations. Coppola would use food extensively in the next two films to convey the same values, traditions and messages. (If you don’t believe me, take a good look!) That other great TV drama about a family in the Mafia, The Sopranos, certainly sees the values embedded in food. And we as the audience cannot help but see it, too, if we look hard enough.
This article was featured in the ‘Food In Film’ Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings https://silverscreenings.org/2017/11/06/foodinfilm-blogathon-aperitif/ and Speakeasy https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/announcing-the-food-in-film-blogathon/
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history