Few sequels can match the charge of anticipation you feel before watching the third part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series. The first two parts – released in 1972 and 1974 – won Oscars as Best Picture and rank as the twin peaks of Mob movies. The lives of Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and then Robert De Niro) and his children – Michael (Al Pacino), Fredo (John Cazale), Sonny (James Caan) and Connie (Talia Shire) – have become the stuff of movie legend. Seeing a Godfather film isn’t business as usual. It’s personal.
So when it sinks in that this nearly three-hour sequel is not up to the level of its predecessors, the disappointment runs deep. Is Part III worth your time? Of course. It’s still The Godfather, and some of it is deeply affecting. Coppola is trying to create a Shakespearean tragedy on the order of King Lear. The time is 1979, and Pacino’s Michael Corleone, diabetic and pushing sixty, is a don about to surrender his fiefdom. He’s dumping his illegal operations and trying to go legit through a business deal with the Vatican Bank.
With its violent betrayals, The Godfather always had the trappings of opera and classical drama. And there’s something else – a coarse vitality owing to the 1969 bestseller by Mario Puzo on which the films were based. It was Coppola as director and co-writer (with Puzo) who turned a pulp novel into an authentic epic. Moving from Sicily to America, from 1901 to 1959, he used the corruption of one immigrant family to expose the moral rot infecting America. Coppola embraced the vulgarity of this Mafia saga as well as its graver implications. He never lost sight of the story as popular entertainment. Until now.
Things start appropriately with another Corleone family ceremony. Michael is being honored by the Catholic church for his charitable donations. At a reception, he’s confronted by his ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), now married to a judge. Kay begs him to let their son, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), become an opera singer instead of a lawyer. Michael reluctantly agrees. He becomes more worried when their other child, Mary, played by the director’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Sofia Coppola, falls in love with her cousin Vincent (Andy Garcia), the bastard son of Michael’s late brother Sonny.
The newcomers at the reception include ambitious gangster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), sly Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), financial advisor B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton), conniving Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) and sexy reporter Grace Hamilton (Bridget Fonda), who comes to interview Michael but ends up in bed with Vincent.
It’s a promising setup, richly shot by Godfather veteran Gordon Willis. But Coppola has been negligent with the script. Vital connections between the characters have been left out. In the first two films, Coppola masterfully drew characters in a few broad strokes. Not this time. Keaton looks frozen; Fonda shows only her body; and Hamilton shows only his tan. John Savage is introduced as the late consigliere Tom Hagen’s son, a priest, and then ignored. Mantegna hams winningly and Wallach outrageously, but they’re plot devices, not people.
Coppola dawdles for eternities over the financial chicanery with the Vatican. And he isn’t up to snuff on the action, either. An attack on a Mob meeting in Atlantic City has violence but no vigor. And the climactic set piece – Anthony’s debut at the Palermo opera house, intercut with an assassination attempt and numerous acts of violence – is overly reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much. Coppola’s heart isn’t in the business or the bloodletting.
Where is his heart then? With Michael. Coppola has never made a secret of his affinity with Don Vito’s youngest son. With his string of flops and financial woes, Coppola knows how it feels to be royalty on the ropes. It’s odd to see Pacino, so effectively recessive in the earlier films, fulminating about his fate (his histrionics occasionally remind you of his performance as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy). But Pacino’s acting grows in force, especially when Michael, confessing his sins, admits that he ordered his brother Fredo killed. As the plot runs its course, Michael loses another person close to him, once again highlighting the connection between Michael and Coppola, who lost a son in a boating accident in 1986. It’s no accident that a sense of grief pervades the film.
After Anthony rejects the family business, Michael takes in Vincent as a son. Garcia’s turbulent and tender performance is the movie’s freshest surprise, and the scene in which Michael anoints him as the new don is the film’s most arresting. It’s Vincent’s love for his cousin Mary that threatens to drive the men apart. Mary represents innocence for Coppola, as she does for Michael and Vincent. Concepts are notoriously hard to play, and Sofia Coppola wages a painful and futile battle with this one. She looks right, though her face doesn’t open up to the camera, but she lacks the experience to give the role weight.
Coppola has narrowed the focus of the story without being able to reduce the film’s large scale. The public and the studio expect an epic, but Coppola has lost interest in providing one. There’s a void where action, characterization, humor and invention used to be. Eventually, Michael shuts out the world; tragedy sucks the life out of the old warrior. And Coppola’s identification with him is total. It’s no wonder the movie leaves a dark chill. The Godfather Part III feels as if it were written and directed by Michael Corleone.