First, the bottom line: If you’re an American, you’ll see The Godfather, Part III … once. After all, Kennedys aside, the Corleones are the only royal family we’ve got and, as an update on the clan unto their third generation, Godfather III combines the anticipatory appeal of Fotomat-fresh family snapshots with the more civic interest inspired by the celeb of your choice on the cover of People magazine.
How could it be any other way? Almost a trailer for itself, The Godfather immediately established Don Corleone’s power over American popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) before settling in to dramatize his son Michael’s Faustian bargain to revive the crime family’s fortune. Indeed, the feds have already done their part to raise Godfather consciousness by busting John Gotti only hours before the season’s major movie event had its single, packed preview at Loews Astor Plaza. Although Godfather III is scarcely a comedy, the audience chuckled throughout, with cynical pleasure and friendly derision.
Released in December 1974, The Godfather, Part II ended some time in 1959. When Godfather III — which, in a wonderfully apposite bit of timing, comes out on Christmas Day — picks up the story 20 years later, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has gone straight, sort of. The obligatory opening rite of passage (a wedding in The Godfather, a first communion in Godfather II) is here almost a spiritual coronation, in which Michael, having divested himself of his illegal businesses and become a noted philanthropist, is receiving a personal decoration from a representative of the pope. Yes, the Godfather meets God the Father, or at least His Vicar.
The previous Godfather films were ceremonial pageants in which delicately arranged historical tableaux and exquisite locations were inevitably seared by eruptions of fantastic violence. (Coppola naturalized the Corleone’s activities in part through the classical use of establishing shots.) Godfather III has considerably less finesse (there’s an attempt to rub out a virtual Apalachin conference of mobsters where it literally rains bullets) but it doesn’t lack for ambition. Coppola and copilot Mario Puzo blast off for some cosmic Shakespearean netherworld of tearful soliloquies and dynastic tragedy, where sister Connie (Talia Shire) comes on like a tarantella-dancing Lady Macbeth and Michael develops a soul. Although Talia Shire has compared her real-life brother Francis’s latest project to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the overarching structure Godfather III more closely suggests is Michael Graves’s postmodern design for the expanded Whitney Museum: The earlier Godfather films are incorporated whole into a new baroque framework that not only returns the Corleones to Sicily for the ultimate climax but involves the Vatican and grand opera too.
As the action is deflected overseas, motivations turn inward. Coppola and Puzo take a cue from the original Scarface by heightening the clan’s incestuous longings. Did you think The Godfather and Godfather II were about violence, vengeance, crime, capitalism, America? Guess again. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spoken in Godfather III, delivered by Michael in husky voiceover. As in popular Yiddish theater, the most intense relationships here are between parents and offspring, surrogate or natural. Michael’s daughter Mary (Francis’s daughter Sofia) is the chairman of his charitable foundation, their closeness mocking Michael’s previous obsession with fathering boys. Meanwhile, Michael’s attempt to persuade his son Anthony (tenor Franc D’Ambrosio) to stay in law school rather than pursue a musical career occasions the movie’s worst soap operatics.
Anthony is the first Corleone to ever sing. The film’s lengthy climax, admirably presaged by a choreographed whack mid-Feast of San Gennaro, brings everybody back to Palermo for a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Nearly a half an hour, this somewhat distended, impossibly convoluted set piece offers the bloodiest bit of backstage intrigue since Murder at the Vanities (not to mention a grandiose reworking of The Godfather‘s single most admired sequence). Still, the edifice is too ornate, the structure is too roomy, Godfather III resounds with echoes from previous films — sinister oranges, strategic cannoli, Diane Keaton. (Vying for most outrageous are the fantasy that Michael and Kay were once a super-romantic couple and their son’s rendition of “Theme From The Godfather,” sung in special tribute to Dad.)
The plot, such as it is, is notable mainly for its deadpan delirium. No sooner is Michael “blessed” than the Vatican bank goes broke and, perhaps having learned the lessons of New York City politics, the Don offers a bailout for a piece of the church’s real estate action. It’s the ultimate money-laundering scheme — the Corleones merge with the pope. As Michael tells sister Connie, “The higher I go, the crookeder it gets.” Although this motif is reiterated in a minor key — priests and killers are indistinguishable throughout — from a Catholic point of view, the high point of the movie is surely Michael’s confession, delivered with appropriate pathos and tolling bells. (The scene dribbles off, but the lucky priest is named pope.)
The Godfather films have thrived on meaningful casting (encompassing a subterranean history of the Actors’ Studio) and if Michael is absolved, Pacino is denied Brandofication. Not that he doesn’t have a look. The movie’s unspoken premise is that the two decades between Godfathers II and III have somehow electrified the once icy Michael Corleone. Moving stiffly with a pitched forward lurch (as if to pull his plug out of a wall socket), hair brushed up to resemble the steel bristles on an industrial floor polisher. Pacino suggests and even acts like a wired Yoda. There are times when Godfather III bids to become three hours of Michael admonishing his obstreperous nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son, Vincent (Andy Garcia).
Although Pacino looks like John G0tti could eat him for breakfast, as the last of the Corleones, Garcia is an engaging, suave, loose-limbed show-off. He makes his bones when two killers invade the Lower Manhattan tenement where he is trysting with a winsome photographer (Bridget Fonda): his authenticity is vouchsafed when he bumps into Martin Scorsese’s mother on Elizabeth Street or carries on his uncle’s tradition by repeating the family lies to Mary, the younger cousin who adores him. Garcia struts through the movie’s first hour suffering under the delusion that this is a gangster film, rather than the surging symphony of guilt and expatiation that drowns him well before the movie ends. The requisite veteran Method actor playing the requisite old mafioso, Eli Wallach flutters and sputters through a mediocre performance. The gangster of choice is Joey Zasa, a publicity-loving thug obviously inspired by Joey Gallo and played, with impressively metallic sheen, by Joe Mantegna. “I’d like to get a little pin from the pope,” Zasa sneers, the Bad Fairy at one of the new Michael’s numerous lovefests.
Still, the most amazing presence by far is Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter Sofia. (Clearly, the pope is not the only one to grant indulgences.) In a deep and satisfying way, Sofia’s exotic full-moon face and awkward body language justify the film. From the moment she arranges her features for the first of many (no doubt necessary) close-ups, generous lips creased in a permanent, wildly expressionistic sneer, through her last Californiated line reading, she gives a performance that is gloriously behavioral. “A bad actor,” Jack Smith once wrote, “is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing.” Nothing in Godfather III has more to do with patriarchal power than Sofia’s uncertain glances offscreen; her seeming suspicion that the least important bit player with whom she shares a frame has more right to the camera than she; her fantastically repressed (hence totally affecting) love scene cum cooking lesson with Vincent. This is a woman cursed with two fathers — one who’s inside the narrative and another who rules the set.
To the degree that The Godfather, Part III is Coppola’s personal psychodrama, Sofia is absolutely essential. (Once you see the movie, it’s obvious why Winona Ryder — who was originally cast as Mary and suffered some sort of breakdown during production — could never have played this part.) Sofia was the infant baptized in the celebrated penultimate sequence of The Godfather, it seems more than appropriate that the saga, which opened so evocatively with an appeal to Don Corleone for justice in the matter of a particularly vicious date-rape, would end with her pained, uncomprehending cry of “Da-a-ad!”
Model for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network television well into the ’80s, The Godfather is so much a part of our national identity it’s difficult to imagine that Paramount first envisioned the movie as a quick cash-in on a surprise bestseller. As reinvented by Coppola, The Godfather not only raised ticket prices to a new high of $4 but wound up grossing more of those inflated dollars than any movie in history (until surpassed by The Exorcist one year later).
These days, The Godfather is being called the greatest Hollywood movie since Citzen Kane. It’s a sloppy judgment — Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, The Naked Kiss, The Wild Bunch, 2001, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Last Movie not withstanding. The Godfather is not even really a single movie. Unlike any other sequel, Godfather II actually improved the original, as well as improving on it. Although Godfather II suffers from repeating too many of The Godfather’s narrative rhythms (a tic that becomes convulsive in Godfather III), it considerably enriched the first film’s allegorical history of America — from the Old World through the frontier settlements of New York and Nevada to the foreign frontier Havana, looping back in haunting postscript to a family dinner on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor
If, in formal terms, The Godfather was Coppola’s Birth of a Nation — a family-centered period piece that, among other things, set out to redress perceived historical wounds and effectively restored classical Hollywood continuity after the narrative breakdown of the late ’60s — then Godfather II was his Intolerance. Although dependent for his meaning on the first film, Coppola’s audaciously analytical reworking of the material, a kind of archeological excavation that allowed the story to go simultaneously forward and backward in time, and Robert De Niro’s brilliant interpretation of “Brando,” illuminated The Godfather and set it, so to speak, among the constellations. To find people who are unfamiliar with The Godfather mythos, you would have to look for them among the characters in Godfather III — which, in a sense, is part of that film’s problem.
Despite its unwieldy editing and somnolent second hour, encumbered by its tour-guide view of Sicily, Godfather III may be Coppola’s richest filmmaking since Marlon Brando capsized Apocalypse Now. That’s a backhanded compliment, I fear. But what does it profit Paramount if Michael gains a soul but loses his world? Michael’s redemption is presented as abrupt fait accompli: Mary’s innocence must be absolute. Devoid of social content, Godfather III represses precisely the period treated in Goodfellas, easy winner of the 1990 gangster-national allegory sweepstakes. Had Mary lived through the ’70s, she would understand her father only too well.
In leaping from period of consensus to period of consensus (the 1960-78 era signified only by the opening shot of the void around Lake Tahoe and a quick tour of the abandoned Corleone compound), Godfather III surrenders its claim on the historical imagination. Although the movie is not altogether superfluous, it can’t help but suggest Mark Twain’s forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels or the bogus credit-crawl histories that American Graffiti made a cliché. In the context of its predecessors. Godfather III has its place — perhaps the longest, most expensive footnote ever made. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 9, 2020