Although last year I announced an intention to do a series of articles which I called “deep dives” into particularly interesting films, this is only my second attempt. (I have diverted much of the time I used to spend on this blog into my online teaching platform, and my YouTube channel). The purpose of this series is to give serious analytical treatment to films that are often forgotten, overlooked or glossed over. That was the case with Back to the Future Part II, the previous subject. Now I turn to another much-maligned sequel: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III, the 1990 also-ran in the classic Godfather series that is generally regarded as the runt of the litter. With some notable exceptions, people, even hard-core Godfather junkies, generally don’t hate GF3; they are, much more commonly, simply indifferent to it, or tolerate its presence in the Godfather canon out of respect for the other two, admittedly much better films. Indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love. Thus, GF3 is the antithesis of the first two installments.
GF3 is a strange film, conceived in a convergence of financial desperation (Coppola’s) and outright greed (Paramount Pictures’), yet with a fairly noble purpose and an uncommonly clear and compelling concept at its core. To say that it’s a great film, if consideration of it is divorced from the two previous pictures, is like saying that Japan won World War II so long as you don’t compare it to how the Allies did. For years my go-to line about GF3 is, “Watch the first 45 minutes, then turn it off.” That’s probably unfair, but it does correctly reflect that the picture is notably lopsided and uneven in its quality. Still, there’s a great deal to admire here. Much of what’s been said about GF3 is unfair. Some of it is fair. But how this flawed film comes together is a fascinating journey into what makes good films good, and mediocre films, well, mediocre. So grab some chianti and a cannoli—preferably not poisoned—and let’s dive in.
This series of articles will, necessarily, contain spoilers.
The film begins with echoes of The Godfather, Part II. We see shots of Michael Corleone’s Lake Tahoe estate abandoned, partially flooded and decaying. Quickly we learn, through a letter read in voice-over, that Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved back to New York. It’s 1979, the Mafia business is finished, and in honor of his great acts of charity and philanthropy, Corleone is about to receive an award, the Order of St. Sebastian, from the Pope. He invites all the old gang—or at least those who could be persuaded to sign on for a third picture—to party at his Manhattan tower townhouse. The rogues’ gallery includes Kay (Diane Keaton), his ex-wife; his adult children Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) and Mary (Sofia Coppola); sister Connie (Talia Shire); and his nephew Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of brother Sonny who was murdered at the toll both in the first film. Various other gangsters and ex-gangsters are hanging around including the aged Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), Corleone’s money manager B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton) and his ever-present bodyguard Al Neri (Richard Bright).
After various updates and confrontations, none of which we need to go into, we ultimately get into the heart of the plot. Corleone’s life is dominated by the guilt he feels over various acts he committed as a mafia kingpin, chief among them ordering the murder of his brother Fredo at the end of The Godfather, Part II. At the same time he’s trying to go clean once and for all and launder the Corleone family fortune, apparently vast, into a legitimate enterprise. In a deal made with shady Irish monsignor Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), Corleone agrees to bail out the Vatican Bank, which is nearly bankrupt from corruption and mismanagement, if the Archbishop will get the Vatican to ratify Corleone as a shareholder in a large European corporation which the Vatican partially owns. Only Corleone’s old mafia pals want along for the ride, seeing the Vatican deal as a way to launder their own fortunes. Cue the double-crosses and assassinations.
Kay (Diane Keaton), long-divorced from former mafia kingpin Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), confronts him with her horrors in this powerful scene from The Godfather, Part III.
The emotional center of GF3 is clearly the concept of remorse. Michael Corleone, having been raised a good Catholic—and even decorated by the Pope—has apparently begun to feel tremendous guilt at his past deeds, and in the autumn of his life he seeks to atone for them. The film plays with the question of how atonement really works and if it is possible even in the face of truly awful deeds. In one of the film’s better scenes, Corleone makes a tearful impromptu confession to venerated Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who later in the movie is elected Pope (and promptly assassinated). “Your sins are terrible,” says Lamberto, after the confession of Fredo’s murder, “and it is just that you suffer for them.” This foreshadows the end of the film, where Corleone’s beloved daughter Mary is accidentally gunned down on the Palermo opera house steps, taking a bullet meant for Michael himself. That’s almost too pat a conclusion, but the way Coppola sets up the conflict in the story, it’s pretty much inevitable.
Curiously, however, in establishing this theme, Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo inadvertently cut us out of what could have been a major part of Michael Corleone’s story: how and why did he come to feel remorse? The chilling closing shot of The Godfather, Part II, where Corleone broods silently on his estate as autumn leaves blow in the background, suggests he has a hint of remorse—the first chink in his steely, cold-as-ice demeanor we ever glimpse in the Godfather series. The opening of GF3, which takes place 20 years later, presents us a man who has made a 180 from the ruthless butcher who ordered his own brother shot. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see that transformation in progress? Indeed, that might have been a more interesting story than the one Coppola gives us in the third film.
True confessions? Michael Corleone unburdens his soul to Cardinal Lamberto. The weight of the remorse is palpable, but note what the cardinal says: “You will not change.”
In one of the film’s early scenes—which I understand was the original opening scene before it was reordered in the editing process—Corleone barters with Archbishop Gilday about the Vatican Bank deal. The scene is heavy on exposition, trying to take on both our introduction to Gilday and the Vatican Bank subplot, but also the big question, “How did Michael get out of the gangster business?” All we get as an answer is a few lines about how the Corleone family has sold the casinos and given up any interests related to gambling. This too seems a bit of a cheat. Corleone talked about doing that, most notably toward the end of the first film—“In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate”—but the trick was always that it was never quite that simple. Now, suddenly, in 1979 at the beginning of the third film, it is that simple. This seems a major missed opportunity at the conceptual level.
This is far from the beginning of GF3’s problems—or the (arguable) greatness that balances it. In a film so uneven, with so many dichotomies, almost everything bad is answered by something that’s excellent. Judging a film this complex on a simple balancing act, “a little of column A and a little of column B,” may do it a disservice. I’m going to try to avoid that approach going forward, but we still have a long way to go.