The Godfather, Part III Revisited

Part III of The Godfather trilogy is routinely and self-evidently reviled. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a score of 68% fresh and an audience rating of 64% positive. By contrast, The Godfather has scores of 98% and 98%, and The Godfather, Part II is 98% and 97%. With the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edited and restored The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, it is time for the superficial criticisms of the third movie to sleep with the fishes.

Is Part III as ground-breaking as The Godfather and Part II? The answer to that is clearly no. That would be nearly impossible to accomplish. Is it a fitting end to the trilogy? There is no doubt in my mind that it is. The main criticism of Part III (which is mine as well) has been of Sofia Coppola’s acting. There are still moments where one cringes, but somehow the overall negative feel of Part III has been remedied in Coda. I don’t resent her character nearly as much as I did. Whether it’s due to the new edit or not, she fits in better with the movie as a whole.

Without watching them back to back (that is, without 6 ½ hours to spare at one time), it’s difficult to tell how much has changed and to what degree with the new cut of Coda, but the narrative seems cleaner and more focused. There are two obvious changes. The less significant change is where Coppola decides to begin Coda, with the negotiation in Rome, rather than with the ruined house on Lake Tahoe. This seems more like a tightening of the narrative structure, rather than a fundamental change in the story.

The more significant change in the movie is at the end, and this was originally my least favorite thing about the re-edit: with as many parallels to the first two movies that show up, the parallel of Michael falling over in his chair to the way that Vito dies was, I thought, nearly perfect in the original version of Part III. The most curious thing, of course, in a movie with the subtitle “The death of Michael Corleone,” is that Coppola decided not to show Michael’s death. However, I like Matt Goldberg’s interpretation of the final scene as a sort of limbo from which Michael will never fully escape. Death does not provide any escape for him, and that is fitting, unless one believes that there are worse things than death. And re-watching the original ending, I am rethinking my initial reaction. 

Apart from that, The Godfather, Coda provides an essential conclusion to Michael’s story. At the end of Part II, he is already sitting alone, his decisions having isolated him from the people he loves or who had loved him. We see that again at the end of Part III, but there is more to it than that. There is a moral struggle within Michael that hasn’t really taken place since prior to Michael’s murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey. The attempt to assassinate Vito turned Michael toward continuing his family’s illegal activities, though he promises to move in the direction of legitimate business. The iconic scene that takes place during the baptism of Michael’s nephew—named for his godfather—contrasts Michael’s vows as godfather with what he has ordered to be done. He has, in fact, fully embraced the devil and all his works and all his ways, rather than renouncing them.

It is not until the third part of the trilogy that we see the the spiritual struggle within Michael fully realized. And it takes place in what is, to me, one of the greatest scenes in any movie, ever. As Michael meets with the archbishop in the courtyard, the camera movement, and the setup for the confession and the absolution make for maybe the central piece of the downfall of Michael Corleone. Here is the struggle between the Spirit and the flesh, the intimate and personal drama of whether Michael will finally be saved or damned.

The archbishop says that he hears the confessions of his own priests in that courtyard, and when Michael is actually confessing, the two openings frame him and the archbishop as if he is in a confessional. The progression of Michael’s confession testifies to Al Pacino’s greatness, even in a lesser movie than the first two. The burden of his sin overwhelms him—central to which is his order to kill his brother, Fredo—though we do not know whether it is contrition or merely attrition. Previously, I had thought that the gravity of the confession was a momentary loss of composure for Michael. But watching it again, it seems to me that it signifies a genuine struggle between what he knows he should do—even what he wants to do—and what he will do.

The Godfather, Coda is the mirror image of Michael in The Godfather, only now transposed into old age and declining health. He wants now what he wanted originally: to be a legitimate businessman and to do worthwhile things in the time he has left. But as he says in perhaps the most memorable and telling line in the movie: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”

The other thing that bothered me when I first watched Part III was the significant difference between the subdued gravitas of the first two movies and the third. Part III is gaudy and even tawdry. I used to believe that this was the result of the difference between filmmaking in the 1970s and 1990, and to some extent that may still be true.

But I also think the difference in atmosphere and mood is part of the point. Might it be true that the reason many people did not like the third part as much as the first two is that the whole ’40s and ’50s mafia “cool” is gone? Gone is the subdued menace of Vito promising to make an offer that cannot be refused, and causing a horse head to appear in a movie producer’s silk sheets. Gone is the calm and arrogant Michael who testifies before congress, knowing that in one way or another he will escape any punishment for his crimes and lies. Gone is all of the overbearing masculinity, part of “the way things were in the old days.” And Michael can feel slipping the iron grip that the Godfather, as don of the Corleone crime family, exercised in order to protect his business and family interests.

What’s left in the late 1970s setting of Part III is an aging gangster who has only barely been able to cover up his criminal activity with charitable foundations and ecclesiastical awards—and everyone knows those accomplishments are cheap and inadequate disguises, including Michael. I think he truly wants to be what he claims to be, but he can’t escape the crumbling house that he himself has built on a bad foundation. He even tells Connie that he’s confessed his sins and I take that as a sincere intention to move in a right(eous) direction. But we know it will never be so.

While Part III or Coda (which is a definite improvement) will never be ranked as highly or considered as significant as The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, the entire trilogy is the gold standard for gangster/mafia movies. And it is the best cinematic depiction of how the idolizing of one of God’s greatest gifts—the family—contains within it the destruction that will always accompany displacing the First Commandment with any other.