The Godfather Part III (Part I) - Adults Only
The Godfather, Parts I and II. Declared as some of the pinnacles of American cinema, they stunned audiences with their textured portrayal of the follies of the Mafia lifestyle and the consequences that intertwining with it can bring. They also achieved the unprecedented honor of winning nine Academy Awards, including two for Best Picture of the year, a feat generally unheard of in a film, let alone a film series. But these two pulled it off thanks to their unique artistic styles concerning the Corleone family, and in my opinion, they earned and deserved their place in cinematic history.
Then, in the late 1980s, Paramount expressed interest in making a follow-up in amazement over the films’ success. So, Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, and most of the cast and crew roped themselves back in for another trip through the dark psyches of the Mafia underworld, albeit begrudgingly so.
Thus, The Godfather Part III was born. So how does this hold up compared to the other two?
This new chapter of the Corleones’ life story hopped forth to the late 1970s, and the Corleone family had all moved back to New York City, presumably in Vito Corleone’s old establishment. At the same time, their house back in Lake Tahoe was left in disrepair, as the first frames showed us. Michael had just been honored with the insignia of St. Sebastian, solidifying his reputation within the Catholic realms and potentially within the Mafia regime. Michael, now in his 60s, started to express some deep, if not long-held, regrets about his life decisions and how his pursuits for power, both for himself and his family, brought forth nothing but destruction and familial alienation. So, when he wasn’t busy tending to his other duties as both the Godfather and the father of his children, he attempted to make good by atoning himself somehow, starting with donating several millions of dollars to the Roman Catholic Church. However, for all his contemplation of giving up life in the Mafia, he was still burdened by his inner urges to work his way up and secure even more of the Mafia power he sought for his family. One of his prime objectives was to get hold of the international real estate facility, Immobiliare. Should he succeed in securing hold of it, especially with the help of Archbishop Gilday, it could’ve made him one of the most powerful men not just in the Mafia but potentially in the world. One of his strategies to achieve it is by dealing with the Vatican City bank, which owned a good portion of Immobiliare. But his plans to achieve it were complicated on all fronts.
For one thing, he had to seek his way to Vatican City without being tracked down or gunned down by his enemies, including other Mafia heads who were also out to seize control of the Immobiliare. And most of all, Michael’s and the other heads’ plans for political conquest were thrown a major curveball when Pope Paul VI, due to poor health, had died before they were able to finalize their moves, as the next Pope, Pope John Paul I, replaced him. This Pope had sent his people out to hunt down anyone from the criminal underworld who was after anything remotely close to the Pope, Mafia heads included.
But it’s not just overseas where Michael and his family were cornered or suffering from such significant dilemmas. They all had big fish to fry, even within the family circle. Due to his age and frailness, his peers felt that maybe the time had come for him to retire. Meanwhile, he was approached by his nephew, Vincent, Sonny’s son, who was faithful to Michael and was willing to do anything to uphold the Corleone values and tie up loose ends as Michael had done before. One of his first impulses to do good by the Corleone family stemmed from his outrage against his ex-employer, Joey Zaza, who had badmouthed Michael prior. It turned out Joey Zaza was also out for Michael’s blood, prompting Michael to be more alert of any foreigners who may have snuck in to whack him.
While that’s all going on, Vincent also underwent a romantic affair, partially with an outside reporter named Grace Hamilton, but mostly with his cousin, Michael’s daughter Mary Corleone. It put them in an even deeper mess because Michael disapproved of their affairs – for me, it might be because they were cousins – and because he thought of Mary as a potential heir fit to lead the Corleone family. On top of that, Mary herself was growing quite suspicious over her father’s criminal shenanigans and started to wonder where they stood within the family, not helped by Vincent’s continual involvement in the family affairs.
Did you find this plot, mainly as I just laid it out to you, generally hard to follow? I don’t blame you because this introduces the first major problem with the movie. And that is that the story goes all over the place.
When you look at the first two films and how they generally told their stories, they were complex but also focused, straightforward, and, the way I saw them, twofold. First, they both dealt with how living the life of a gangster, especially in the name of family, usually came with nothing but misfortune. And they were made more alluring by focusing on two Mafia heads, one who fell and the other who rose. And while The Godfather explored this juxtaposition in the exact given moment, Part II did so by providing each ruler their separate narratives. Because of this, these two films masterfully laid out the groundwork for an odyssey that had the workings of a Shakespearean tragedy and complemented each other perfectly.
In this movie, the general storyline centered on the possibilities of redemption, only for the temptation to rise even higher in the Mafia totem pole to collide and take over. Now, this idea alone was not without merit. It did show the good foundations of how anyone who’s ever committed crimes, even if it was for a living, could potentially have been remorseful of what they’ve done. And at that point, could they have given up their life of crime for good, or were the temptations of the criminal life just too great to resist? It hinted at the respectably realistic aspect that once you’re in, there’s no going back. As Michael famously said:
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
But the Godfather films were great because they showed that Michael had pondered it all the time, especially when he wasn’t busy with an opposing force that generally offset it. This movie generally felt like there was no major threat from Michael to deal with. Outside of Joey Zaza and the Pope, the threat here generally felt insignificant compared to his real enemies from way back when, such as Sollozzo, Fabrizio, Barzini, and Hyman Ross, who all had personal ties to the Corleones at some point.
Even though Michael here had shown some consideration on leaving behind the Mafia lifestyle, he also didn’t want to have anything to do with it back in the first movie, too, shortly after he returned home from serving in the war. Initially, he wanted to start a new life with Kay without the entanglements of his family’s Mafia business getting in his way. This was interesting, as it gave us a compelling look into how he felt about his role in the Mafia underworld. The fact that Michael was so contrite and yet so committed felt inconsistent but also oddly compelling at the same time.
Its inspirations were another facet of this movie I wouldn’t have seen coming. Whereas the two films were created by the imagination of Francis Ford Coppolla and Mario Puzo – and the book by Puzo alone – this story was inspired by real-life events that occurred around this movie’s timeframe. And no, I don’t mean anything like the Lufthansa bank heist as documented in Goodfellas; I’m talking about the death of Pope John Paul I. Succeeding Pope Paul VI after his death, John Paul I took over for a measly 33 days before he was found dead in his bed. This sparked controversy, for rumors have spread about the likelihood of John Paul I being poisoned and murdered by Vatican affiliates after announcing his attempts to quote ‘clean house’. When you look at the Corleones and their connection to the Vatican affiliates, on top of carefully pinpointing which ones were most worthy of their trust, that introduced a creatively compelling way to present historical information, if not proof, through familiar means.
Something else I found curious about Part III was its portrayal of gang violence. For the most part, it felt realistic, but other times, I feel like they went a little over the top. The first two films showed the mob hits in a fast, swift, but no less brutal and gory fashion. In fact, The Godfather films were cinematic hallmarks thanks to the swiftness and brutality of such hits. The beheading of the prize horse and Sonny’s execution, among other things, all pushed the envelope in terms of what methods of violence were acceptable in film. However, in Part III, some of the violence now felt tame compared to what came out around the same time this did. And as I said, some of the methods of Mafia violence were a little over the top. The helicopter showdown? Sheesh! It was a surprise attack, all right, but how would this have been considered a proper Mafia–induced execution unless it attracted police or even public attention? And the sooner-than-I-expected whacking of Joey Zaza at the Italian American street festival parade? How is it that hooded hoodlums went out parading in public only to suddenly whip out their guns and fire at their targets, even if it was only them they were after? And how about the police officer who gunned down Joey Zaza himself? Was he masquerading as a police officer, or was he gunning him down just because he was a Mafia affiliate?
To further add to the intrigue, how about the Mafia competitions concerning Immobiliare or the Vatican bank? How did Michael know that other Mafia heads would’ve been out for them as their prizes, and not just him? Had he picked up on that from Mafia press hearings he attended or something? Or, instead, would he have communicated with any of them about it at some point?
Some of the other huge problems with this movie stemmed from its casting. One of the most notable omissions from this movie was Robert Duvall as Tom Hagan. Because he was arguably one of the most important supporting characters in the Godfather series, I can see where people are coming from when they say that Part III felt empty without him. Though there may have been hints of him disapproving of the project, the main reason he wasn’t in Part III was because of a salary dispute. In his place, Michael instead relied on such people as BJ Harrison and Dominic Abandando. I don’t know if it was because I ignored them from the other films, or if even they made an appearance of some sort in the other movies. But all I can say is that I never found either of them as memorable or as crucial to Michael’s dilemmas as Tom Hagan was.
And that leaves us with the biggest flub in the movie, the one thorn on many people’s side that threw what The Godfather Part III had to offer out of balance.
And I concur, it’s Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone.
Every once in a while, she did express a sense of flair to her. I think it had more to do with her costumes and makeup, but I found her pretty in a way where she looked entrancing while concealing how she was the next in line of one of the most powerful Mafia families in operation. But whenever she made her moves, emoted in particular ways, or spoke with other people… Man, she just felt way off! Her smiles and expressions felt crooked, and every time she spoke, Sofia sounded like she didn’t care how she felt most of the time. This felt most noticeable when she argued with Michael about what he intended to do with his donations or her relationship with Vincent. Her tenors and tone didn’t fit in either hectic situation, and in general, they made her look as awkward as she was elegant.
And if that’s not bad enough, Francis Ford Coppola never even intended to cast his daughter in the role of Mary Corleone in the first place. The high-profile actress he really had in mind to play the role was Winona Ryder instead. Sadly, however, those plans fell through because she was busy with other major film roles at the time. And judging from the time this all occurred, those film roles may have included Edward Scissorhands. It’s almost a shame she had so many film roles to juggle; who knows how well remembered Mary Corleone would have been if she was the one playing Mary instead? And I personally don’t blame Sofia Coppola for this mess. Instead, I blame the hasty production and her lack of acting experience.
Speaking of which, what she lacked in acting expertise, she would thankfully and eventually have made up for with her writing and directing talents. These especially came into bloom when she made such films as The Virgin Suicides with Kirsten Dunst and Lost in Translation with Bill Murray. It just goes to show you that some big-name stars in Hollywood are talented in some things but not in others.
And thankfully, in the case of The Godfather Part III, this is where the most egregious parts of the movie end. Sure, it does not hold a candle to the first two films, but it has plenty of admirable, good, and even great aspects that don’t deserve to go unnoticed.
The first good part of the movie, though it wasn’t on as grand a scale by comparison, was the performances from the rest of the cast.
Andy Garcia did a terrific job as Vincent Corleone, even though parts of his performance felt more Spanish than it did Italian. He expressed a slightly emotional demeanor to him, which was fitting since it made him take after his father, Sonny. But accompanying his passionate personality was a sense of composure that emphasized his commitment to take over as the future Godfather of the Corleone family. One family member who wanted so badly to see him succeed was his aunt, Connie, who said of him:
You’re the only one left in this family with my father’s strength.
On occasion, he expressed some unpredictability, too, leaving his sense of trust to be brought to question. As I mentioned already, he went out with more than one woman at a time, and once it converged with his desires to do Michael proud and prove himself as a worthy heir, only then did it reach rocky terrain for his relationships.
Of all the new actors in this movie, I have a soft spot for Donal Donnelly as Archbishop Gilday. He came across with a genuinely holy and delicate demeanor while also slipping aspects of suspicion to him. This was most apparent with his cooperation with such Mafia members as Michael Corleone. He was willing to be underhanded with his motives, but at the same time, he was super careful about who to trust. This all made him feel unpredictable, too, only in a subtler way.
Talia Shire gave one of the most engaging performances in the movie as Connie Corleone. Any shred of emotional instability she expressed in the first movie and maybe in the second movie had disappeared entirely. Every time she came on screen, she just oozed with grace, composure, and even hints of a potential mastermind at work. It made her connections with Vincent even more interesting because 80% of the time, she was determined to see Vincent take over in the family monarchy. And this raised some interesting questions about her relationship with Michael, even though she said she loved him and would have done anything for him. Did Connie still hold a grudge against him for killing Carlo in the first movie? Or did she do what she did in response to Michael killing Fredo in the last film? While that part of the story was never made clear, it did spice up her role with a little more intrigue.
Diane Keaton still expressed a sense of delicacy to Kay Corleone here. Only in her case, what had disappeared was her stylistic aspects of modesty. Taking their place was a more serious yet mellow façade that highlighted her sense of maturity and experience. Despite her background with Michael and her feelings, she confided with him in some of his expeditions but did so more as an accomplice than as his wife. In a way, it all made her journey throughout the films suddenly give off a more unfortunate angle. She came from a humble home in New Hampshire, and here she was, beaten down by the harshness of the Mafia lifestyles in which she allowed herself to be trapped and still standing her ground against what she took the most umbrage with.
And finally, you have Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. He might’ve shown some age here compared to the other returning actors in the movie. However, he still maintained his dangerous façade that demonstrated his ruthless antics as the Corleones’ Godfather. If anything, his age only amplified what made him so intimidating in the first place. In the movie, Michael even developed a stroke, forcing him to be evacuated to a hospital, be given extensive medical treatment, and take various medications to sustain his health. The effect it had on Michael was very realistic, and even a little tense, and Pacino conveyed it with such suddenness that even we may not have seen it coming. Even then, however, even at his most frail, Pacino ensured that Michael remained calm, committed, and in control of how he expected things to go for him and his family. I forgot that he even had a stroke half the time; I was that invested with his business matters.
On top of that, Pacino allowed Michael to be composed and deep in thought, again displaying his character’s three-dimensionality. Some of his emotional outbursts may have felt a skosh out of place compared to how they were in the first two films, but in general, Al Pacino’s performance still left a mark as one of the movie’s highlights.
Come to think of it, it wasn’t just Diane Keaton who graced the screen with noticeable maturity and experience; all the returning actors did. After honing their skills in not one but two films, you can tell that they all played their parts like naturals. Because of that, they made the movie for me.
The shots throughout the movie were nice, too. Just like the last film, they gave the movie a sense of atmosphere, thus enabling us to fully immerse ourselves into this world and see ourselves standing alongside the Corleones as they tried to devise their next game plan. Interestingly enough, of course, the yellow tint we knew so well from the first two films wore off a little here. I usually thought the yellow tint made the films cleverly carry illusions of a slightly faded family picture. Here, it felt less like it occurred in the past and more like it occurred in the present instead. You know what? As I think about it, that also seemed slightly clever in the grand scheme of things.
The music by Carmine Coppola still rang with the moody yet occasionally cultural melodies that highlighted the movies’ themes and tragic stories. However, I can’t help but feel like it generally didn’t feel as solid or impactful as in the other films. Nevertheless, the ethereal essence that made the music so beloved is still present here. In addition, the movie even ended with a song entitled “Promise Me You’ll Remember.” It felt like a lovely, soothing song, and its musical aesthetics carried a slight 50s vibe to it. I found it intriguing that its lyrics implied the possibilities of getting back together after going through hardships. When you look at the entire trilogy, Michael and Kay went through tribulation after tribulation, and yet there’s still a sliver of hope waiting within their relationship’s mostly crumbled remains. Vincent and Mary also went through tribulations of their own in Part III, so the song’s themes could apply to them, too. I don’t see the song being the anthem of the saga anytime soon, but I still admire its thematic flexibility and alluring rhythms.
The characters all expressed the same essence of conviction, dignity, and presence that made The Godfather series such a household name, as did the new characters. I already mentioned how Michael’s characterization was like here in Part III, but I feel some others are worth noting.
Despite the role’s execution being weird, Mary Corleone had plenty of exciting things going for her. For starters, Mary started engaging in a secret relationship with Vincent, even though they were both cousins. What would’ve prompted such a relationship between them despite their family relations? That’s one of those parts of the movie I wished had been explored and made more apparent. But whenever Mary didn’t worry about Vincent, she started getting more suspicious of her father and just what his motives really were. She picked up on that when she noticed something off going on with Michael’s handling of the money he donated. And she even picked up on the strong likelihood of Michael having murdered her uncle Fredo before. Knowing that Michael had high expectations for Mary in upholding the family line at some point – though that could’ve used some explanation since he dealt with Vincent simultaneously – this resulted in some compelling family drama between the Corleones.
Kay had a much smaller role here than even in Part II, but her return to the Corleone household and Michael did prompt the question of whether or not time can heal wounds. She still held onto the same contempt against Michael as she always had since his ascension as the Godfather but still went out to him as if she and Michael were on more amicable terms again.
Even though his role in the movie was also small, Michael’s son and Mary’s brother, Anthony, also expressed a unique perspective on his family’s idea of the Mafia lifestyle. Unlike Mary, he was fully aware that Michael whacked Fredo back in Lake Tahoe at the end of Part II, and because of that, he had a more strained relationship with Michael. It was also clearly apparent to us relating to his career choices. Initially, Michael wanted him to be a lawyer, but instead, Anthony’s calling was more to be a musician. Later, Anthony landed a role in an opera called Cavalleria Rusticana, performing in Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily. And out of closeness to his family, especially Michael after his stroke, he invited them all to attend the opera.
Believe it or not, this leads me to discuss what I consider the movie’s saving grace: the entire third act set in Palermo, Sicily. From beginning to end, it was marvelous.
Here’s what’s going on, and I’m about to engage in spoilers here, so you’ve been warned:
The Corleone family ventured forth to see Anthony perform his role in the opera. While that’s going on, Vincent, who Michael just promoted as the next Godfather of the Corleone family, ordered hits on all their enemies throughout Sicily and Vatican City, from Archbishop Gilday to Pope John Paul I himself. I could tell that this was all arranged as part of the Corleones’ plan to take over Immobiliare through the Vatican City bank. Still, though this was never fully explained – I don’t think it was, anyway – the Corleones were simultaneously targeted by snipers who were out for Michael’s blood. The tensions continued to rise until they took a drastically tragic turn. After the opera wrapped up, Michael came dangerously close to being shot and killed by the snipers only to look at horror and despair at Mary, who was shot and killed instead. This was especially gut-wrenching because Mary was devastated by Vincent’s loyalty to Michael instead of to her and confronted Michael about it at one point before she died. When she did die, Michael stood there, frozen in grief and anguish, and fell in a worse state because of his stroke. Finally, the movie and the series ended with Michael sitting alone in his chair by Don Tommasino’s villa, slowly dying while a couple of dogs were playing around him.
This whole part of the movie may not have been perfect, but by God, I thought it was the best part of the movie. Look at it this way: there were mob hits at every corner, the music from the opera was haunting, the shots were stunning, the suspense mounted up beautifully, almost everything from the movie came together, the climax was heartbreaking, the performances were top-notch, even Sofia Coppola’s acting was at its most decent. And there’s something about the last shot that seemed to carry thematic significance as far as both Michael and the franchise were concerned. So, it felt like a robust, poetic, and almost grand way to wrap up the story of The Godfather.
Since its release in 1990, many filmgoers and Godfather fans didn’t think highly of Part III. And neither did Francis Ford Coppola; he always thought of Parts I and II as making up the story he and Mario Puzo wanted to tell and felt that Part III was the epilogue. Not only do I not blame him, but I agree with him. As a movie, it did not need to exist. But as an epilogue to one of the most iconic and masterful Mafia sagas ever told, it did an excellent job of exploring the after-effects of the Corleones’ prolonged Mafia activities. And for everything the movie got wrong, including the cluttered story and Sofia Coppola’s awkward acting, there were more than plenty that it did right, especially the third act. So much so that the good stuff alone is why The Godfather Part III is still worth a look, if you can brave your way through its more embarrassing moments.
But then, last year, on its 30th anniversary, Coppola banded up with Paramount to re-edit the movie and have it match his and Mario Puzo’s intended vision, down to using their preferred title. That cut is called The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. And what are my thoughts on that version of the movie?
Well, that’s for all of us to find out next month, so until then, stay tuned!
My Rating: A strong B
Would you believe it if I told you that in the late 1990s, there was some talk, even from Francis Ford Coppola, of making a Godfather Part IV? The idea was that it would’ve taken a page from Part II and split into two narratives. The first one would’ve focused on Vincent Corleone as he got more settled in his position as the Godfather of the Corleone family. In contrast, the other narrative focused on his father Sonny’s upbringing by Vito Corleone as they aged. And if that’s not surreal enough, superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, hot off the success of Titanic, would’ve starred as the young Sonny Corleone. But the plans went up in smoke by the time Mario Puzo died in 1999. This idea would’ve been an interesting if still unnecessary continuation of the Godfather saga, primarily because it would’ve extended its attention to other members of the Corleone family instead of Michael. Even the story of Vito raising Sonny, his eldest son, his way was taken straight from the novel, just like Vito’s upbringing in New York City. In retrospect, however, The Godfather saga may have meant to focus on how Michael became the Godfather and how his handling of the position became his downfall. So, the fact that The Godfather Part IV never made it past the conceptual stage was probably for the best.
Here’s another thing I discovered about the third act and why it was such a splendid part of the movie: the man conducting the orchestra at the opera was none other than Francis Ford Coppola’s uncle, Anton Coppola. I’m telling you, from Francis Ford Coppola’s writing and directing to his father Carmine Coppola’s music, his uncle Anton’s orchestral arrangements, his sister Talia Shire’s performances, and his daughter Sofia Coppola’s...search for talents, the creative genes of The Godfather sure run in the family! In fact...man, whether it’s on the screen or behind the scenes, The Godfather really is about family, isn’t it?
Lattin, D. (1990, December 31). Vatican Story Line has Real-Life Basis. South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1990-12-31-9003050625-story.html.