Francis Ford Coppola must have plea-bargained with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The Godfather Part III" may look like an honest blood-and-guts sequel to Parts I and II, but it has a new subliminal message. This time around, "The Godfather" is not about the triumph of good over evil, or even of evil over good. It is about the triumph of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines: Eat more fresh fruit. Remember that fat, cholesterol and sugar can kill you. And be suspicious of caffeine.
Thus, if you want to know who is going to survive in this finale of "The Godfather," just watch who eats what. This is the most powerful propaganda for complex carbohydrates since the oatmeal scene in "Moonstruck."
Right from the beginning you know Don Michael Corleone is in for tough times. This guy is a diabetic, and what does he eat when he is trying to woo back his ex-wife, Kay, and show her how mature he has grown? Rum cake. Italian rum cake, oozing chocolate custard, layered with maraschino-red glaze and slathered with whipped cream -- or, even worse, Crisco-white frosting.
Needless to say, Kay doesn't touch the stuff. Lean and fit WASP that she is, she watches her diet. The only thing you catch her eating, in a Sicilian villa where once again she and Michael have a private moment, is some gloriously crusty old-fashioned Italian bread. She ignores the salami and olives on the plate before her.
Michael too takes a slice of bread. But he looks at it as if it were a dead fish and puts it down uneaten. Except for a token plate of spaghetti to remind the world that he is still Italian, the only nutritious food Michael consumes in this film is orange juice. No wonder he's in a bad way.
This is Michael Corleone's tragedy. He tries to buy respectability. He tells his sister, Connie, "All my life I tried to go up in society." He even has a copy of New York magazine on his desk. But he just doesn't get it right. After contributing $100 million to the Vatican, which nets him papal honors, you'd think he'd know enough to book the right caterer for the celebration party. You'd think he'd gone beyond serving champagne in those wide saucer glasses that dissipate all the bubbles. And you'd expect him to hire waiters who know not to fill the red and white wine glasses to the rim.
And surely Michael Corleone, of all people, would be beyond being cheated by the caterer. But while the banquet menu released by Paramount Pictures promised stuffed oysters, lobster, salmon in aspic, quail with black rice, scallops au gratin and roast beef, most of what shows up on screen is empty plates and one quick shot of a standing rib roast. The platters of food are whisked by so fast you can barely get a glimpse. The audience is left hungry, allowed to linger on nothing more glamorous than a bowl of apples.
Even the rum cake, piped with an elaborate chocolate papal cross, looks like the work of an amateurish neighborhood bakery. One very good cook leaving the theater sniffed, "If I was baking a cake for the don, I would have tried harder."
Clearly the Family has lost its vigor. The Corleones started out in America with an olive oil company, as the hotheaded illegitimate nephew Vinnie reminds Michael's daughter Mary. But Mary has drifted so far from her roots that she drinks cappuccino through a straw. And she boasts to Vinnie that she doesn't know how to cook. What more would you expect from a woman who brings Barbie dolls as gifts to the children of Sicily?
When all the big guys are called together by Don Corleone for a summit in Atlantic City, they gather at a table laden with good, wholesome fruit, but it is nothing more impressive than you could get at your local Safeway -- apples, oranges, bananas and whole pineapples. And the table is strewn with bottles of A-1 Sauce and ketchup. Likewise, in the scenes of Sicily there is always a bowl of fruit in the background, but it is earthy, homegrown-looking fruit, fruit you can almost smell. In Italy they still know how to eat. When Michael has a diabetic attack in a Sicilian churchyard and calls for juice, it takes but an instant for the cardinal to produce a large pitcher of orange juice -- freshly squeezed.
Any "Godfather" aficionado waits hungrily for the scene when the family goes to ground. These gang lords have always known how to eat when they hide out. But this time the soul has shriveled. There's spaghetti, of course, but it looks dried out. And while the homey kitchen has a real restaurant stove, the only ingredients in sight are tins of dried herbs and an open can of tomatoes. Canned tomatoes!
Once again, however, there is that subliminal theme: Watch the apples and oranges. That's the key to who survives.
Of course, Coppola throws a few curveballs. Is the aging Don Altobello on the side of the winners? There's a mixed message in his emerging from a Chinese restaurant: Is that because he is a gastronome, or is there something suspicious in his dining outside of Little Italy? Throughout the film, Don Altobello sounds like a man who knows enough about the healthful properties of the Mediterranean Diet: "I must accept my age and grow my olives and tomatoes." In Sicily he praises the bread and appreciates that the olive oil is "virgin." But Altobello has his tragic flaw too. He has such a weakness for cannoli -- deep-fried, fat-saturated, cholesterol-rich and sugary -- that he is gauche enough to eat them at the opera and piggish enough to finish a whole box.
Ultimately, "The Godfather Part III" is the American success story. No matter how low one's birth, any man can win. Even a bastard can overcome the obstacle of illegitimate birth through proper diet, and grow up to be president -- or in this case, don.
Much as I hate to give away the ending of a movie, "The Godfather" is so obvious that my blabbing is justified. Nobody could really expect Michael's challenger, Joey Zasa, to be the victor once he's been spotted waving around a sausage sandwich at an Italian street festival. He's still chewing it as he dies. And as he falls, careful observers will notice what looks like a painting of fruit on a wall behind him.
Only Vinnie -- the hothead, the bastard nephew -- is a man with strong dietary convictions. Only Vinnie knows how to cook. Vinnie makes gnocchi like an angel, with that masterful flick of the thumb that turns mere dough into tiny curled shells. Guns might make a man powerful, but cooking makes him sexy. Just watch.
And Vinnie, who in this movie has an orange in his hand as often as a pistol, knows that food holds the secret of living and dying. His weapons are more effective than bullets. Fat. Cholesterol. Sugar. Creamy pastries. Boxes of cookies. Even the caffeine in a cup of tea.
Gun control -- ha!