Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part III” (1990)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Out of Competition)

Facing a seemingly-insurmountable mountain of debt stemming from the box office failure of 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART, director Francis Ford Coppola struggled throughout the 1980’s to make films that would dig him out, only to see them fail and Debt Mountain rise even higher.  By 1990, Coppola had to do something drastic, something he thought he’d never do—he had to make a third GODFATHER film.  Paramount had always extended a long-standing offer to him to make another sequel, but when he finally took them up on it, they kicked him while he was down.  They gave him only a million dollars to write, produce, direct, and edit the film, as well as a measly deadline of six weeks in which to write the script.

With the deck stacked against him, Coppola summoned everything he had to make a film that would stand up to the saga’s two cinema-defining predecessors.  In the end, the long-awaited final product—THE GODFATHER PART III—did modestly well at the box office, but disappointed its audience and has since become known as an “awful film”, the black sheep of a sterling silver lineage.  What most people forget, however, is that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and despite a few fatal flaws, THE GODFATHER PART III holds up surprisingly well as an inspired, yet unexpected conclusion to an epic saga.

The story picks up in New York City, circa 1979.  The Corleone family consiegliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is dead, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is an old man intent on salvaging his legacy and bringing legitimacy to the Corleone name.  He taps his considerable wealth to buy a controlling share in Immobiliare, an ancient Italian real estate conglomerate with ties to the Vatican.  In doing so, he has to contend with the cardinals of the Catholic Church, who are well aware of his sins and fight to prevent his takeover.

At the same time, the bastard son of Sonny Corleone, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) is rising fast in the mafia ranks, making known his intention to succeed Michael as Don of the Corleone family.  He begins an affair with his cousin (and Michael’s daughter) Mary (Sofia Coppola), while also battling with the Corleone’s family rival, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).  As these two story threads converge, Michael realizes that he can never be saved from his sins, but he can do everything in his power to save his family.

THE GODFATHER SAGA is known for its iconic performances, and while PART III more or less holds up to that standard, it falters along the way.  Pacino is as great as ever, imbuing his older version of Michael Corleone with the hunched back that comes with heavy burdens and aging complications.  We last saw him as a distinguished, suave young man, but PART III finds Michael as a soft-spoken diabetic, ashamed of his past and wracked by guilt.  It’s a haunting performance, especially in the film’s final moments.  Oddly enough, it was the only one of Pacino’s three performances as Michael not to receive an Oscar nomination, but it’s just as worthy.

Diane Keaton returns as Michael’s estranged wife Kay, who is also been made weary by time, but finds herself softening to Michael in her advanced years.  She no longer sees a murdering monster, but a good man who lost his soul doing what he thought was the right thing for his family.  Kay has always been the audience’s point of sympathetic access to this world, and her arc is necessary to hammer home the key theme of forgiveness and redemption.

As Corleone family upstart Vincent Mancini, Andy Garcia is the highlight of the film, channeling his late father’s hotheadedness and charisma to secure his place at Michael’s table, only to learn he was born a few years too late and organized crime isn’t really the Corleone’s thing anymore.  Garcia is sly and charming, a natural successor to Corleone’s criminal empire—he would have made a perfect Michael Corleone himself if THE GODFATHER (1972) had been made twenty years later.

The supporting cast is filled with actors of the highest caliber.  Talia Shire returns as Connie Corleone, fully in command of her status as the matriarch.  Her years in service to Michael have made her a calculating woman, not unlike a Lady Macbeth.  Whereas in PART II she railed against Michael’s tyranny, in PART III she is a full partner and Michael’s closest confidante.  An elderly Eli Wallach plays Don Altobello, a good-natured old man who becomes an unexpected nemesis to the Corleones in the wake of Zasa’s rivalry.  As Joey Zasa, Joe Mantegna steals his scenes with a smug, vainglourious attitude and a slippery, treacherous demeanor.  Zasa is the closest the film gets to a traditional GODFATHER antagonist, and Mantegna has never been better than he is here.  John Savage, who had once appeared in a film that took enormous inspiration from THE GODFATHER (Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), comes off believably as Tom Hagen’s son Andrew, a friendly priest on assignment to the Corleone’s native Sicily.  He doesn’t get a lot to do, but fans of the actor will find his inclusion memorable nonetheless.

And then there’s the elephant in the room.  I’m talking about Sofia Coppola, handpicked by her father to sub in for Winona Ryder after she dropped out of the key role of Michael’s daughter Mary.  Now, I respect the hell out of Sofia and truly love her directorial work, but it’s no secret that her acting is outright atrocious.  It might have even been the decisive factor which kept the film from attaining the same kind of Oscar glory that its counterparts enjoyed.  Her flat delivery and blank stare is devoid of life and robs the film’s resolution of substantial dramatic impact.  Coppola is to be admired in how he collaborates with his family to create great art, but charges of nepotism are certainly justified in this case.  Simply put, his judgment was clouded, and his impaired foresight almost sank the entire ship.

For a sequel made sixteen years after its last entry, the look of THE GODFATHER PART III is remarkably consistent with its predecessors, due entirely to returning cinematographer Gordon Willis.  The 1.85:1 35mm frame boasts deep shadows and keeps the same color-faded sepia tone that evokes old family photographs that so distinguished the previous two films.  However, I also noticed that the image is considerably pink-er than the others, as if shot through rose-colored glasses.  Willis and Coppola capture the various New York and Sicilian locales with the same reserved camerawork that was employed by its predecessors, and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis authentically recreates a subtle period aesthetic circa 1979.  We see a much more decrepit NYC this time around, consistent with the griminess of the city at the time, but it also suggests the growing inner decay of the film’s morally bankrupt characters.  This is most apparent in scenes with Vincent Mancini, who operates underground in a time where gangsters aren’t afforded the same type of respectable, dignified public image they once were.

Instead of Nino Rota, Coppola’s father Carmine comes on board to score the film, adapting much of Rota’s iconic themes into new arrangements that give the music a somber, distant and forlorn patina to reflect Michael’s regret.  The unmistakable waltz theme fires up right at the beginning of the film, reassuring as we slip right back into the mafia’s world as if no time had passed at all.  The trademark inclusion of opera music and church hymnals are also retained, while a few dashes of rock music are scattered throughout to reflect how times have changed for our favorite crime family.  Musically, Carmine’s work is probably the weakest of the three scores, but it still packs an emotional punch—especially through his arrangement of “Cavelleria Rusticana” in the film’s denouement.

THE GODFATHER SAGA is well-known for several sequences that are reference-grade work on great direction.  Scenes like the Baptism Murder sequence in PART I, and a young Vito stalking his prey along the rooftops of New York’s Little Italy in PART II are some of the best individual sequences in cinema.  PART III, unfortunately, has only a handful of similar sequences—none of them packing the same kind of emotional punch as the aforementioned scenes.   The only one that comes close is the ending, in which Coppola depicts Michael’s agony over (spoilers) the death of his daughter Mary by shooting.  While the scene is shot fairly conventionally in terms of coverage, legendary editor Walter Murch made a daring, inspired choice to cut out the sound of Michael’s anguished scream so that his face becomes a silent contortion of grief.  Michael’s heart problems are alluded to throughout the film, so for a moment it seems like he could be suffering a major cardiac arrest until he finally finds his wind and lets out a neutered whimper.  It’s heartbreaking to watch, and what was initially a happy accident becomes the film’s most memorable moment.

Like the previous two films, I had seen THE GODFATHER PART III several times before watching it for the purposes of The Directors Series.  I had always thought it to be an excellent film, despite its poor reputation.  Watching it in the context of Coppola’s career development, I was able to read into the film deeper than ever before.  While the key themes of the series—religious ceremony/ritual, family, and a cross-cutting, murderous climax—are all present and accounted for, I saw a very autobiographical aspect to Michael Corleone’s storyline this time around.  Coppola’s previous feature, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988) had previously explored this territory in much more overt fashion, but THE GODFATHER PART III comes at it from a more compelling angle.

I’ve written before about how by this point in his career, Coppola was firmly into middle-age, and his best work was most likely behind him.  Faced with a sharp downturn in the quality of his product, Coppola no doubt must have felt the desire to salvage his cinematic legacy from ruin—much like how Corleone was compelled to clean the dirt from his family name as he became an old man.  Both men’s efforts are constantly foiled by the products of their own sins and indulgences: Corleone’s demons are the ones he has birthed himself from the wreckage of his tyrannical crime empire, and Coppola’s is the inability to distinguish himself in new ways in the eyes of an audience who has judged him to only be capable of one way.  Both men ultimately save their souls by selling them—Corleone reluctantly embraces his old criminal methods and Coppola has to make the one kind of film his audience wants him to make.

It’s a well-known fact that Coppola, having envisioned it as simply an epilogue to the first two films and not a true PART III, wanted to name the film “The Death of Michael Corleone”.  It could be argued that an equally appropriate title would be “The Death of Francis Ford Coppola”, with Michael standing in for Coppola as a man struggling to stay afloat in the wake of a child’s death, a stalled career, and a public perception at odds with the legacy he wishes to leave.  THE GODFATHER PART III is an expression of remorse and hope for a fallen soul.  It is a confession, both Corleone’s and Coppola’s alike.

This impassioned approach undoubtedly shows in the finished product, resulting in one of the finest films Coppola has ever made.  THE GODFATHER PART III is quite literally Coppola filming for his life, as an act of cinematic survival.  It’s not a perfect film, still prone to nepotistic indulgences and stubborn auteurism, but it’s a worthy conclusion to one of the greatest American film series of all time, and a valiant effort to recapture that ineffable talent that never quite found its way out of the jungles of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

THE GODFATHER PART III is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.


Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Gary Frederickson, Fred Fuchs, Fred Roos

Written by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Photography: Gordon Willis

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Edited by: Walter Murch, Barry Malkin, and Lisa Fruchtman

Original Music by: Carmine Coppola