While there are many strong scenes in the first movie, the defining one – in my opinion – is the baptism scene. While standing up for Connie and Carlo at their son’s baptism, Michael is the very font of virtue (Michael Rizzi, do you renounce Satan? Yes, I do renounce him.), pledging to help Connie raise the baby as a virtuous Catholic. Unknown to anyone at the ceremony, Michael has ordered hits on all his rivals on the same day, effectively ensuring that the Corleone family will rise to prominence over the heads of the Five Families. Contrasted with his earlier vows to make the family business legitimate and the fact that he’s standing before God as the violence unfolds, this is a wrenching scene. Nothing good can come from the conflict between righteousness and sin. To me, this scene marks the beginning of the downfall of Michael Corleone.
There are two scenes in this film that make the movie so powerful in my opinion. The first is the abortion scene. Michael has been out of town on business when he receives word that his estranged wife, Kay, has had a miscarriage. In a fit of anger, she eventually reveals a terrible secret to him—“it was an abortion, Michael, just like our marriage!” She screams that she couldn’t bear to bring another child into the corrupt Corleone family and that she’d rather be damned for having an abortion than have to raise her son to be the eventual godfather. As a Catholic and a man for whom family is everything, Michael cannot contain his rage and calls her a bitch as he hits her and orders her out of the house. It’s a beautifully acted scene between Diane Keaton and Al Pacino and no matter how many times I see it, my breath catches in my throat at the raw anger and hate that courses through the dialogue.
The second scene that tears my heart out is Fredo’s death. Fredo is Michael’s older brother, and as such, he should have held the position of Don after his father and Sonny (the oldest son) died; he’s perceived as weak and lacking intelligence, so he is reduced to the role of family lackey,instead, the one who’s sent to run errands while Michael conducts business. Hyman Roth, a family friend who wants to take revenge on Michael for killing his best friend, Moe Greene, dupes Fredo into revealing information about the family business to Roth’s lieutenant, Johnny Ola. When Michael finds out what has happened, he disowns his brother, telling Fredo he doesn’t want to be anywhere near him. Michael refuses to do anything drastic until after his mother passes away, but once Mama Corleone dies, Michael gives the order. His lieutenant, Al Neri, is to execute Fredo for betraying the family. Fredo, in his naivety has no idea that Michael is going to have him killed, as Michael “forgave” him at their mother’s funeral. Fredo is prepared to take his nephew, Anthony, fishing, but when Anthony’s called away, Al Neri joins him in the boat. Michael watches from the house as Fredo says a Hail Mary (his secret for catching the most and biggest fish) and is shot in the back of the head. His death is eventually explained as an accidental drowning, but this is the single worst act of revenge Michael has committed, making this one of the most tragic scenes in all three movies.
By this film, Michael is pretty much at the end of his emotional and physical stability. Diabetes has ravaged his body and the loss of his family has tormented his soul. He wants nothing more to do with the Mafia, but due to the continued attacks on his family by rivals, he has no choice but to return to the life he was so desperately trying to escape. In a poignant scene, Michael is seeking absolution and confesses to Cardinal Lamberto (who later becomes pope), “I killed my mother’s son.” The cardinal casually dismisses him with “it is good that you suffer” and offers him absolution. It is Michael’s torment, contrasted with his earlier callousness regarding Fredo’s death, that is truly tragic, and the viewer wonders if he’s truly remorseful, or afraid of the consequences of his actions on his mortal soul. I believe it’s equal parts of both. The final scene in this movie is one of the most chilling in the whole trilogy – Michael and the family travel to Sicily to support Anthony’s debut in the opera Cavellaria Rusticana; none of them have any idea that Sonny’s bastard son, Vincenzo, has hired assassins to kill Michael. After Anthony’s triumphant debut, the Corleone family is ambushed as they leave the opera house. It isn’t until the gun battle ends that Michael realizes his daughter, Mary, has been fatally shot. He screams as she dies in his arms while her mother and aunt look on in horror, the barbaric life he has lead finally consuming him. After Michael thinks back on all the women in his life who’ve suffered due to his choices, the scene cuts to Michael dying alone at his villa while the Corleone family continues without him. This is a tragic end to a series that has many powerful moments, and I tear up every time I watch it.