WARNING: Contains Spoilers for the entire trilogy.
Previously examined films in this series such as Alien 3, Star Trek III, and The Matrix Reloaded have all had to contend with the reverence the their preceding films in their respective franchise, Alien, Aliens, Star Trek II, and The Matrix all being generally considered superior films to those in question. But perhaps no other film in the history of cinema has had to contend with as fearsome a reputation of it’s predecessors as The Godfather Part III. The Godfather was released in 1972, The Godfather Part II was released just two years later in 1974, Part II in particular was amongst the first high profile sequels ever made, and it remains one of the only sequels to (along with the first film) win Best Picture at the academy awards. Both Parts I and II sit jointly at number four on Sight and Sounds 2002 critics top ten films of all time and number two in the director’s top ten films of all time, with only Citizen Kane held in higher esteem. Numerous Top films lists from across the globe award these films top spots on their greatest films lists, but Part III is noteable by its absence. The film is often chastised as a dreadful sequel, a poor attempt to cash in on the reputation of two of the most critically adored films of all time.
The Godfather: Part III was plagued with production troubles from the outset. Mary Corleone was originally to be played by Winona Ryder (how much better she would have been than Sophia Coppola is a matter for speculation) but she pulled out. Rebecca Shaeffer was also considered for the part before she was murdered, Julia Roberts was Coppola’s preference and even Madonna was considered. Robert Duvall was due to reprise the role of Tom Hagen but allegedly asked for too high a fee (after realising that he and Al Pacino would have been joint leads and thus deserved an equal salary) and so the character was written and Hagen was replaced by the new character B.J Harrison, the entire plot of the script had to once again be re-organised to fit this drastic change. Frank Sinatra wanted the part of Don Altobello, but also backed out due to too small a pay cheque, Eli Wallach took the part instead.
The film was stuck in production hell for many years with numerous scripts written and then rejected, scripts with radically differing contents and conclusions. Coppolla refused to do the film for years, then agreed, then refused and finally agreed again. As time goes on with any family it seems harder and harder to bring everyone back together again, and the family who produced the previous two Godfather films were no exception. Ultimately it was money which motivated Coppola rather than any artistic desire to complete the trilogy, the studio was going to make the film one way or another, with or without him. Even the films commissioning was dubious, Zoetrope Productions needed a guaranteed production success in order to make back money lost on other film.
So it’s fair to say that The Godfather Part III had less than encouraging beginnings, perhaps the motivations for The Godfather Part II were purer, it all depends on how much importance you hang on the issue of motivation. Do the ends justify the means? The honest truth is that this film was almost guaranteed to make a profit, even if it didn’t do well critically, even if it didn’t win awards, the simple truth is that after over fifteen years of accumulated praise and a large fan base, The Godfather Part III had a guaranteed audience and from a capitalist point of view the surprise is not that the film was produced but that it took so long to be produced.
Do the ends justify the means? Was Part III worth making at all? Does it have any merit, does it contribute anything to the story of Michael Corleone? Well the answer from my view is that it doesn’t just contribute to the story; it adds something essential - a last act. To use a theatrical parallel, imagine William Shakespeare’s King Lear ended once Lear realises his mistake in exiling his only good hearted daughter Cordelia, Lear in the midst of a great storm comes to a revelation about family, end of the play. This is effectively where The Godfather Part II left us, with the murder of Fredo, the abortion of his second son and the divorce of his wife Kay, Michael sits in a chair alone and realises that he has lost his soul. The final images of Part II need no words to explain their meaning, the meaning is utterly clear, and it is one of the greatest endings in American cinema, the final climax to Coppola’s perverted analogy about the destructive nature of the American Dream which is rooted in capitalist conceits. What Part III provides is the redemption, or at least Michael’s attempts at redemption. Time has passed, it’s now 1980 and the Don has rid himself of all the criminal enterprises and replaced them legitimate business interests, he is investing himself in the Catholic Church and is in the final stages of severing all connections to the world of crime. But as Michael states after the helicopter massacre “Just as I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Perhaps Part III’s only truly classic line of dialogue which has been quoted in the TV series The Soprano’s and Friends. Part III takes Michael in a radical new direction, Michael is now more emotional than before, less coldly detached, he is warmer to those around him and more than anything wants to make amends for what he has done. His investment in legitimate business is for his son Anthony and his daughter Mary, despite Anthony not wanting anything to do with him Michael continues his desperate attempt to stay above board. But the destruction he set in motion decades earlier will still come back to haunt him, there is nothing he can do about that. Nothing he can do to stop the tide rising, to stop the tragedy his family will befall. That word is key to understanding Part III, the film is a tragedy, the trilogy is the tragedy and like all good tragedies the protagonist realises the errors of his ways before his true punishment is dealt to him. This development also solidifies Michael as the main character of the trilogy, previously it had been split between Michael and his father Vito, especially in Part II which split the narrative in two and followed both character separately in two time frames. In some respects Michael feels more alone than ever before, with Tom dead, Kay estranged, and his son Anthony has no respect for him, the only real friends Michael has left are his daughter Mary, and his sister Connie (and this is only based on her misapprehension that Michael didn’t have Fredo killed). Indeed the final scene of the film and of the trilogy flashes forward to the year 1997 and sees Michael sat by himself back in Sicily, truly alone at the moment his life comes to an end and he slips away peacefully, but very much alone.
So what’s so bad about the film? Why does Part III have such a negative reputation, despite clearly only being brought into existence for the purposes of money it has still managed to retain two of the key ingredients of the previous films, Coppolla and Pacino, but unfortunately, for most viewers this is simply not enough to outweigh the litany of sins this film commits. But I will try to take a more balanced view of these errors and examine them in relation to the film and the trilogy as a whole. Firstly, the character of Joe Zaza (the films most visible villain played by Joe Mantegna), he is a one-dimensional caricature in many respects, and he lacks the rounded personality of his predecessor. Ultimately though his character is unimportant in the long run and does not survive to the films last act, as Michael astutely points out: “He’s nothing”. I’d also argue that the character of Zaza is no more of a caricature than that of the landlord Vito subtly threatens, or Don Fanucci (the Black Hand extortionist) from Part II, who Vito carefully dispatches in order to rid himself of unfair taxes and move up in the criminal world. Both of these characters are almost comically simple in the Vito story of Part II, yet rarely are they criticised as being such. With this in mind I can forgive the transgressions of Joe Zaza. Of course Mantegna a short year after the release of Part III went on to play Fat Tony, a comedy gangster imitation in The Simpsons, Mantegna playing this character for nearly twenty years means that it is difficult to detach separate the two characters when watching Part III.
As we approach the middle of The Godfather Part III, there is a surprising sequence involving a helicopter attacking and wiping out a huge number of people in a dinner party, miraculously Michael, Vincent and his body guard are three of the only people to escape this death trap. This sequence is often criticised not for it’s lack of realism, but for it’s sensational nature, granted nothing in Part II is of this scale, the only point which even remotely resembles it is the early assassination attempt on Michael in his compound, he narrowly avoids a hail of machine gun fire. However in Part I, the death of Sonny Corleone played by James Cann could be argued is nearly as excessively brutal and sensational as the helicopter attack as Sonny is machine gunned to death by a half dozen or so men, he continues to scream and stand long beyond what is realistically possible and when he finally does die a gun man still takes the time to kick him in the head. The trilogy has not been totally immune from such sensational acts of violence in the past.
There are other issues with Part III, the use of flashbacks at the start and end of the film are misjudged, and the assassins/body guards in the final sequence of the film are also one-dimensional. However the biggest problem for the film is quite clear and obvious to anyone who’s seen the film – Sofia Coppolla as the daughter Mary. Where as previously Fransis Ford Coppolla had managed to avoid the pit falls a familial nepotism, Nicholas Cage and Talia Shire both being successful members of the Coppolla family who’ve gone onto make successful careers as actors, his daughter Sofia was not so lucky. This is one area of the film I can not defend, she is dreadfully wooden, she lacks any kind of screen presence, and Daddy’s lens is less than forgiving of her painfully poor performance. Sofia and Andy Garcia have no chemistry what-so-ever, it is also hard to believe that Vincent would be in anyway interested in her, let alone risk his life by being with her (this is more due to poor writing than either ones performance), although the distinct lack of passion between them doesn’t help matters. I feel sorry for Sofia Coppola, she has been ritually chastised for her performance in this film for twenty-years, when she herself was little more than a child when her father gave her, her biggest role to date, which aspiring female actor would refuse such a part? Francis should have known better, there are few fathers in the world capable of objectively assessing the talents of their offspring, and clearly Francis was watching the rushes through the eyes of an adoring father otherwise he would have taken steps to re-cast her as Sofia was clearly out of her depth. Of course it doesn’t help performing along side the likes of Pacino, Garcia, Shire, and Wallach.
But does she ruin the film entirely, well no she really doesn’t, Mary Corleone is a supporting part, with less screen time than many of the other character mentioned in the film, her romance with Vincent is a short lived subplot and her presence in the final act is only to provide Michael with his final punishment as she is hit by a stray round during an attempt on Michael’s life and dies in her fathers’ arms.
The Godfather Part III is not a bad film, it’s not even close to a bad film, it is flawed no question about it, and when compared with Parts I and II there is a significant contrast. People often judge sequels solely in relation to the films that have come before, a process of judgement, which often serves to exacerbate the films flaws, this routinely occurs in the case of this film. Despite its flaws, a number of the films scenes hit the same majestic notes as its predecessors, some of the performance moments are as powerful as anything in Parts I and II. The final thirty minutes of the film see Michael and his family head to the opera house to see Anthony’s stage debut, this final set piece is even more thematically and visually complex than the final baptism sequence from Part I, an assassin prepares to kill Michael with a sniper rifle whilst two of Michael’s body guards try to stop him, meanwhile Vincent has organised and authorised the brutal murder of the new enemies of the Corleone family. In Part I, the obvious juxtaposition was of death and birth, Michael’s Nephew being christened as Michael’s enemies are murdered, in Part III we have a more complex juxtaposition and an interesting duality - the former head of the family is to be killed as the new head of the family orders the killings of other men, contrasted with the creative and artistic forces unleashed on the stage before them, the creation of art and the taking of life. To add further to the complexities, there are parallels in what is occurring on stage and what is occurring in reality, the stage reflects life, and life reflects the stage. Nothing in Parts I or II come close to this in terms of semiotics or contrasting parallels.
Earlier in the film Michael visits the man who would eventually become the new pope and finally succumbs to the desire to confess his sins to the father, Al Pacino has rarely been better than in this most forgotten of excellent scenes as he painfully releases himself from the burdens of terrible secrets he’s accumulated over the years. Pacino has a tough job in Part III, reprising the role which in many respects kick started his career fifteen years after he last donned the role of Michael Corleone, not to mention that in the intervening years Michael has mellowed and become a man who barely resembles the merciless young man we last met in the 1950’s, Michael is now old and grey with children who’ve all grown up but with a homicidal past which still hangs around him like a black cloud on a sunny day. No matter what he does, no matter how much good he does, how much religion he can immerse himself in, his past is still there. Kay points out, “now that you’re so respectable I think you’re more dangerous than ever” this simply isn’t true, and Michael’s motivations maybe up for question by everyone around him, but they are never questioned by the audience. In last scenes of the film, Michael’s humanity is not in question as he holds his dead daughter and screams to heaven above, Coppolla cuts the sound of the scream at first, the absence of sound is somehow more agonising than when it becomes audible. Rarely has there been such a powerful portrayal of total loss and pain on the silver screen. Michael may not have physically died for another seventeen years, but emotionally this is his end.