Michael’s choice

I was thinking yesterday about Michael Corleone’s decision to marry Appolonia in the Godfather. After he has committed his first murder, that of a corrupt police officer in New York, Michael’s family send him to Sicily to lay low. At that time, he has a girlfriend in New York – Kay Adams – whom, we are given to understand, he has been having a serious and committed relationship with for many years. After he reaches Sicily, one day he sees Appolonia and falls in love with her at first sight. At an impulse, he asks her father permission to court and marry her. This is a great scene in the movie, where Michael’s bodyguards are joking with the owner of an inn about a girl that Michael has seen, and as they describe more and more of the girl, the innkeeper suddenly gets angry and storms away, leaving them with the realization that the girl is his daughter. Then Michael calls him back and tells him (and this is one of the best dialogues in the movie): “I apologize if I offended you. I am a stranger in this country. And I meant no disrespect to you, or your daughter. I am an American hiding in Sicily. My name is Michael Corleone. There are people who would pay a lot money for that information. But then your daughter would lose a father, instead of gaining a husband.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spCmlCEMyZg]

Appolonia and Michael have a brief but happy marriage; however, it struck me as a very dishonorable thing to do that Michael should have thrown over Kay so easily and taken a wife in Sicily. Even more shady, when Michael comes back to New York a short while later, after Appolonia has been assassinated in Sicily, he straightaway marries Kay. We are given no indication that Kay ever knew about Appolonia.

In watching movies like the Godfather (and, of late, Woody Allen’s ‘middle period’ movies), I am tempted to do ‘pairings’ – to evaluate who would have been best matched with whom. Initially, it seemed fairly obvious to me that Michael and Kay belonged together; that Kay’s New York sensibility and her unwavering love for Michael made her the best choice for a mate for him. Appolonia, I decided then, was just an indulgence for him; it was a passionate decision made on the spur of the moment, a decision ‘three parts lust and one part marriage’, and I thought Michael would ditch Appolonia if he ever got a chance to go back to New York.

However, reviewing the movie (and the book) in my mind yesterday, I am inclined to disagree with my previous assessment. I think, at the core of it, Michael is very traditional, very conservative; I think a core theme of Puzo is the notion of an ‘Italian value system’ that does not change from generation to generation, which is what (in Puzo’s opinion) keeps the Cosa Nostra bonds going for so many years. In writing the character of Michael, Puzo has an opportunity to demonstrate this; that, despite his liberal and middle-class New York upbringing, Michael is similar to his father, not just in business temperament, but also in personal affairs. Perhaps Michael saw the policeman assassination as an opportunity to cleanse the ‘foreign’ American lifestyle he had been living, and move to the Italian lifestyle that was always his destiny. I now believe that it was his love for Kay that was three parts lust; that it was a phase he was going through, which he did not really know how to get out of, until he saw an opportunity to become a fugitive in Sicily. In Appolonia, he met the girl of his dreams: a virgin, inexperienced in love, but for all that, a strong Sicilian woman who would have been a powerful influence on his life and career the way Kay never was.

Michael always craved legitimacy; he would have welcomed an opportunity to ‘go clean’, to take the family business legal. At some level, his courage failed him, but it was not just courage, it was also circumstance. Kay never fit into his lifestyle, his life choices, his upbringing; there was no way she would be a proper mate for a man of his calling. Appolonia would have been the perfect match, and had she moved back to New York with him, you can be sure she wouldn’t have allowed Michael to shut her out of his business the way he did with Kay.

So why did he marry Kay as soon as he got back? I think that exposed a fundamental weakness in his character; perhaps his judgment was clouded as a result of Appolonia’s death, and he felt a certain loneliness and vulnerability that needed immediate assuaging. Nonetheless, things would have gone much better for Michael, and his family, if he had stuck to his roots, and married within the community, instead of falling back on a willing Kay.

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