Consider two narratives. One is from the Modern World: a car travels up a drive to a house and two men get out. They ascend the steps to a balcony to talk to the man of power, bloated with age and the fruits of living, who is taking his siesta. His gunmen see there is no threat and retire. The first man is very respectful and asks to introduce his friend – as a mark of respect. The second man steps forward and asks for the man of power’s blessing, and receives it: the man offers his hand to be kissed, and the second man kisses it. The man of power asks for his name, the second man gives it. But the man of power ‘don’t hear so good’, so the second man leans forward and tells him again, and then adds, ‘And this is for you.’ With that he takes the knife hidden under the coat draped over his left arm and rips open the man of power’s belly. The second man steps back and with the first makes his escape, not without gunfire.
The other narrative is from the Ancient World, indeed the very ancient world. A man goes to a king’s house, to the upper chamber, in order to deliver the tribute of the people under his charge. Those with him then retire, and the man says, ‘A secret word I have for you, King.’ So the king in turn sends away his courtiers. The man says, ‘A word of God I have for you,’ so the king stands up. And the man, with his left hand, takes the double-edged sword strapped secretly to his right thigh, and plunges it into the king’s belly. The king was a very fat man, we are told, and the fat of his belly closed over the blade. The assassin went out, locked the doors, and made his escape.
The first, as you have spotted, is from Godfather 2, a flashback to the episode in which Vito takes revenge on Don Ciccio for having murdered his father, his elder brother, and finally his mother. Aged nine at the time Vito only just escapes with his life – to New York and Godfatherhood.
The second is less familiar. For Lent I read the Book of Judges in the translation by Robert Alter. Not your normal reading, but there it is: the Bible and Lent go together. Choice episodes include the Israelites chopping off the arms and big toes of Adoni-Bezek (‘master of Bezek’): Jael driving a tent-peg through Sisera’s head; Gideon harrowing (literally) the men of Succoth with thorns and thistles; Abimelech burning a tower filled with 1000 men and women; Abimelech killed by a millstone flung from a tower that shatters his skull; a Levite man and a concubine ‘abused all night long until morning by Benjaminites’; not to mention the story of Samson which includes slaying the Philistines, being seduced and blinded, then acting the force of an earthquake in the Philistine temple. The Book of Judges does not just contain death but cruel, violent and degrading death. It is the shockingest kind of pulp fiction.
The story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon the King of Moab is as vivid and episode as any in Judges, I think because it occurs in a cool upper chamber under a veneer of formality and respect surrounding the delivery of tribute by a subject commander, a scene exploded by an eruption of violence and repulsive detail. When I read it, I instantly thought of the scene in Godfather 2 and instantly concluded that Coppola, and his screenwriter Mario Puzo, were referencing the passage in Judges. Ehud, the assassin, was a left-handed man and it was his left hand that committed the murder; when Vito approaches Ciccio he uses his right hand to kiss the offered hand, the weapon veiled under the coat draped on his left arm. But no, Vito uses the knife in his right hand to kill Ciccio, and the parallelism between the two narratives is just coincidental.
Yet, if one has not influenced the other, they do echo each other in their world-view, of a violence in the world that is tragic without even being cathartic. They both proclaim, “This is what the world is like,” behind our façade of civilisation and of human relations conducted with respect. The idea is so far from edifying to the extent that both stories should be shut out from our lives. Yet this is impossible to do: both of them bewitch us; we watch or read fascinated; and they have that extraordinary quality that when we have read or watched them once, we want to do so again and again, to renew our acquaintance with the ghastly detail.
The biblical narrative is paratactic, in other words an ‘and . . . and . . . and . . .’ narrative distilling it into a series of essential details. ‘Cut. . . cut . . . cut. . .’ Coppola’s film narrative has similar qualities: the sequence starting from the car arriving at Ciccio’s villa to its leaving in haste, the deed done, lasts four minutes and comprises some 45 shots, and the sequence on the balcony is a series of shots and reverse shots starting in medium shot and ending in closer shot (but not in close-up). As you watch for the first time, you are lulled with the heat of a Sicilian late summer afternoon, then you palpitate with unease – the rest of the film has taught you that something unpleasant is going to happen – and then you gasp at the sight of the knife being ripped up Ciccio’s front.
I first read Judges as a boy in the King James Version, its violence clear but the detail toned down by the obscurity of the language at certain points. Try Robert Alter’s translation, with his essential commentary, to feel the full starkness of the event.
Finally, I cannot help reflecting in a melancholy fashion that these are both religious narratives. The cultural Catholicism of the Godfather is essential to its atmosphere: the episode of Ciccio’s murder is followed by the sight of Vito and his family leaving church after Mass. And Judges? It is possibly the most violent, God-forsaken book of the Bible – but it is not really God-forsaken since the events happen within the total story of Israel, God’s chosen people. The Bible, like life, ‘contains multitudes’.