Opera Meets Film: ‘The Godfather: Part III’s’ Operatic Structure As Reflected Through ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part III.

“We’re in Sicily. It’s opera.”

So says the elder Michael Corleone after living most of his operatic life. We saw the good-hearted man turn into a corrupt gangster for the right reasons, his heart still in the right place, ala Boris Godunov. Then we saw him channel his inner Scarpia in the second film, the results of which have left him virtually alone in the world and with tremendous weight on his shoulders in the last film.

The first two films are two great masterworks, the first built on a traditional narrative structure and the second on two narratives intertwining and commenting on one another through time.

The final film in the trilogy is often maligned when put up next to the others, which are brilliantly executed and peerless in their individual construction. And while its flaws are all too noticeable (a lot of the casting goes awry and the plot feels rather unfocused), the film has its own very specific structure: opera.

In some ways, the third “Godfather” film is rather laser-focused in a way the other two films are not: this one is all about Michael Corleone’s degeneration despite his attempts to try and save himself. In this respect, the film is the most operatic of the three, the emotions for Michael at their most extreme. He has a massive heart attack at one point. He repeatedly claims that he wants to make his business legitimate and asks everyone for forgiveness at some point in the story. In one essential scene, he makes a heartbreaking confession to the future Pope. As for the ending? We’ll get there. The other films were built on far more subtle moments of change for Michael, but here he is carrying it out loud, almost in operatic fashion.

This, of course, is highlighted by the fact that the film contains the trilogy’s only major operatic sequence, which is built on this very theme of Michael’s redemption.

Offstage and Onstage

Much like in the first film, where he orders the murder of his enemies as he becomes a “Godfather,” here he is watching his son triumph while his enemies are dispatched.

But there is a twist. He has not given the orders for anyone’s death as he is no longer the true Godfather of the Corleone family. Moreover, he is also under threat of death throughout this sequence and his fate, seeing his son start a brilliant career and thus legitimize the Corleone name, or death, hangs in the balance.

The final 45-minutes of the film are built on a production of “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which stars Michael’s son as Turiddu. Much like the film’s meandering structure, the opera, as presented in the film, is all over the place. The opening of the opera is in the right place, but then we hear the drinking song before the Easter Chorus, followed by the confrontation between Alfio and Turridu. And thrown somewhere in there is Alfio’s big aria. Not to mention that the opera’s most famous piece, the intermezzo is showcased outside the context of the performance.

Some might find this connection between the two structures by necessity, but the opera makes quite a few references to other moments of the film. We see Turiddu bite Alfio’s ear in the same way that Vincent bites Joey Zasa’s. And just in case we miss the coincidence, Coppola cuts to a shot of a smirking Vincent after the moment. The camera cuts in close to the white cloaked characters parading the Christ right before a major death in the sequence, connecting with the same exact look of Zasa’s murderers. When Santuzza covers her head, Coppola is preparing us for a direct reference to the final scene of the film when Connie will do the same exact thing. And these are but a few references throughout the entire sequence.

Also, worthy of note is how the music at a particular moment onstage connects with “offstage action.” The Easter chorus of resurrection is probably the most fascinating example on a number of levels. The referential piece of music builds quite beautifully, creating the anticipation of climax. The entire opera sequence has been built on attempted and completed murders. As the music of choral ensemble grows, the audience feels that the death of Don Altobello is imminent from the constant gaze of Connie through the opera glasses. The death comes at the climax of the entire sequence, using the music as a means of leading us to the moment.

But the sequence does even more than that. To strengthen these ties between the film itself as opera, the music of Mascagni blends with that of Carmine Coppola and vice versa. And the moment the Cardinal gets shot, we get the screams of “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu” from the opera itself.

The bloodbath of Corleone’s victims comes to a close with the final notes of the opera, the man himself surviving the entire performance, and in the process seeing his son succeed. The opera and film seemingly at odds with one another.

But it’s not over.


This is supposed to be opera, right? Michael, a “hero” in his first film, and an anti-hero in the second, here becomes a tragic hero, so close to finally making his change for good but falling short of it. As fate would have it, he suffers the ultimate fate – the death of his daughter before his eyes.

Coppola’s choice of music to highlight this moment is the Intermezzo, its delicate yearning amplifying the heartbreak of the moment. The emotion is expressed through the combination of music and visual, Michael’s deafening screams silenced for a time and the music leading us all the way through to the conclusion of the opera. The choice here of music is all effect, but it’s powerful in execution, bringing the entire sequence to a tragic end and the film, to its painful conclusion.

The main question of redemption is answered with the music from an opera that circles around this theme. Santuzza wants redemption but her actions push her further from it. Turiddu cares little for it until it is too late, which is ultimately what happens with Michael. He dies old and alone.


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