Stories, faith and resolution

I want to think a bit more about story endings, which is going to mean spoilers for the films I’ll be talking about. If you don’t want to know the ending for The Godfather trilogy, or Flight, or The Great Beauty, then you should stop reading.

I wrote in a previous blog that the ending of any story has the power to affect fundamentally how you view everything that had gone before it, for better or worse. Storytellers may also choose to teeter around irresolution, which conversely may or may not be satisfactory depending on what went before.

Perhaps the best example of how irresolution can work well is in the perfect end of The Sopranos, which didn’t so much end as stop. This “stopping” is quite different in turn from something like the BBC’s The Hour, which came to an unresolved end in the apparent expectation of a third series, and was then cancelled by the network. Its cliffhanger ending was instantly meaningless. The ending of The Sopranos on the other hand forcefully reminded you of the distinctive premise of the series, that this was not some modern or ironic tragedy about the rise and fall of its central, commanding figure: it offered a random segment of an extraordinary life, lived as an ordinary one, where the notion of a Mafia family was pushed to a literal extreme and turned into a kind of vicious soap opera.

Funnily enough one of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they never reach an ending, but will drag on and on as long as ratings permit, their interwoven stories each reaching their own semi-resolutions without offering the gratification of an ending. I’m not knocking the craft of those who make these soap operas, but I think what put The Sopranos on a different level (apart from the general brilliance of its writing and execution) is the sense that Tony’s world might well have come tumbling down around him at any point, and so brought the story to a close. The fact that it didn’t happen (which is not to say there weren’t casualties along the way) was in itself a twist, a reminder that these extraordinary lives were indeed also ordinary and might just drift on. In the context of a story about corruption and murder such an irresolution takes on specific meaning.

The Godfather Parts 1-3
One of the funnier elements of The Sopranos was the way its Mafia characters would quote from The Godfather films, which certainly operated on an operatic rather than soap-operatic level (literally so in the final film).

It’s routine for critics to knock the third Godfather film as a piece of hack work appended to the perfection of Parts One and Two in order to make a bit of money. While Coppola might well have needed the money, it seems to me crass to suggest that his pride would have allowed him to turn out something so much diminished, and to my mind Part Three brings a perfect resolution to the careful irresolution at the end of the second film.

The Godfather Part Two you might remember ends with Michael Corleone sitting alone among trees, his passage from war hero to murderous Mafia don complete, and the isolation his symbolic reward. This is artistically satisfying but in truth leaves plenty of scope for further reflection and development, which is what happens in the third film.

Thinking of this Part Two ending as a resolution, as the last word on Corleone, invites a narrow judgement of Michael which actually cuts against much that made the films so compelling. Critical here is the part played by the Catholic church in Mafia life, a part which is given its most powerful moment at the end of the first film when the baptism of Michael’s child is intercut with the ruthless elimination of the Corleones’ rivals. It might be tempting to see this as a straight irony, a way of highlighting the family’s hypocrisy, but it’s not that simple in Catholicism which (to deploy a cliché), preaches love for the sinner while hating the sin. To be drawn into the story is to understand and feel for the Corleones’ humanity alongside their monstrosity, itself a very Catholic view. The idea that Michael might have reached the end of his moral journey at the end of Part Two might be satisfying enough aesthetically but is not acceptable theologically, and that’s where the third film starts.

In the third film Michael seeks redemption. Its thumping irony is that he turns naturally to the Church for that redemption, but only finds a deeper corruption than in his own life. The assassination of his daughter embodies the dying of any remaining light in that life and Michael is left in a final scene sitting alone again, to die like the crumbling of a dried out leaf.

Perhaps this religious element is not interesting to those who have not felt the conflicts of trying to maintain a Catholic faith, but for a lapsed Catholic like me it means the third film finds a new depth which makes it a worthy conclusion to the trilogy. Sofia Coppola’s much-vilified performance is at least as good as it needs to be, and technically the film is as masterful as the first, the structure of which it consciously mirrors. History I hope will judge it more kindly as a proper end to the saga.

Flight: an end off pat
I’ll touch briefly on Flight, which I saw recently, as a film which is undermined by its ending, an ending which smacks too much of the desire to offer something morally cut and dried, perhaps for commercial reasons. That’s a shame because Robert Zemeckis’ film is through most of its duration consistently more interesting and ambiguous. It too has an interest in faith though what makes that interest interesting is the way it plays through the film without being particularly important to its narrative; it’s there in a cynical monologue from a dying cancer patient, in the Baptist sect who interrupt their strange rites to help the plane crash survivors, in the oppressive blinding faith of the co-pilot and his wife.

But this faith is not a force pushing the film to its resolution. It’s more like a series of grace notes in the story of a man who’s lost himself to addiction, and proves irrelevant to his eventual recovery. It’s hard to say then what it’s doing in the story, but it broadens its scope in a way which makes the pat ending all the more unsatisfying.

The Great Beauty: sentimentality redeemed
That pat quality, a kind of sentimentality, afflicts the end of The Great Beauty, a very different film, though it works in a way which makes you want to accept the possible value of sentimentality. This long and spellbinding film weaves in several minor stories, but for the most part lacks narrative drive. It meanders with all the pointlessness of its main character as he wanders from party to party, a successful but dried up novelist adrift in the empty glamour of Roman high society.

Once again there’s a religious element towards the end, when a Mother Theresa figure is briefly welcomed into that society as an object of curiosity. Her intense but (in this context) bizarre faith becomes a counterpoint to our lead character’s concluding journey to the island of Giglio, where he finally recognises the significance of the young woman who turned away from his 18 year old self, the Great Beauty he’s been seeking ever since.

As I say this ending risks sentimentality, but because it suddenly gives a shape to what previously felt shapeless, finally reveals that there’s been a story arc after all, the resolution is satisfying. Instead of letting down what went before, it gives it the meaning that’s been lacking in the writer’s life, without detracting from the incidental observational delights along the way. As you reflect too on those delights it becomes apparent that any sentimentality is in the mind of novelist, and has a sustaining place there, but is not itself especially sustained by the events you have seen: after the death of the woman who was the Great Beauty, her husband cheerfully finds another much younger woman. This balance of insights helps to ensure that the film continues to feel satisfying as you reflect on it, and to have reached a good resolution which has not been cheaply won.

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