‘The Godfather: Part III’ Turns 25. Revisiting a Trilogy’s Stepchild

If it could stand alone, if somehow The Godfather, Part III didn’t have to exist in the same world as two seminal masterpieces, this would be a great film for any other filmmaker. But the final tale of Michael Corleone’s failed attempt at redemption is not allowed such freedom, and as the part of a larger whole, it’s undeniably inferior. When held up against the previous two entries, something doesn’t feel right about The Godfather III from the very opening, and that strange, off-kilter aesthetic remains unshakable until a final shot that almost redeems everything with its perfection. Digging deeper into Francis Ford Coppola’s stepchild of the saga, there is still much to enjoy, appreciate, and marvel at; but it’s never quite enough to get the film entirely on track.

The story picks up several years after the somber final notes of The Godfather, Part II, almost two decades after Michael had his own dimwitted brother, Fredo, murdered at his Tahoe estate. The fact so many years have passed was mostly because Coppola forever denied Paramount’s request to finish out the story with a third film. Coppola had washed his hands of The Godfather as far as he was concerned, but a string of Paramount duds and suddenly he found himself indebted to the studio – how very “mafioso.” So then, reluctantly it seemed, Coppola returned to the Corleone family, and could never nail down the magic he had captured in the 70s.

The structure of The Godfather III is all off. It begins like the other two films, with a large party scene, but this one is dull and lifeless. On the one hand, having the life drained from the Corleone family – and Michael himself, even though he is working doggedly to legitimize the family name – is a good thematic move. There is no more joy in Michael, his soul has been squandered. But this listless opening party sequence feels less like a thematic decision and more like poor imitation. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, a master of shadowy storytelling, is back for the third installment, but his composition lacks any of the draconian dread lurking in those shadows. The screen has been homogenized, making it less threatening and more sterile, almost like a TV movie in this opening scene. While Willis finds his groove in certain moments, especially near the end, too often the look of this film doesn’t appropriately match its predecessors.

The Godfather Part III

Beyond this opening scene, where Michael attempts to buy his soul back from the Vatican in the form of a healthy donation, the story is murky and disjointed. It’s never clear what is happening and, more despairingly, it doesn’t matter. We go from here, to the Vatican, to Michael’s fractured family life, his flaccid attempts to make amends with Kay, but we bounce around without any of the connective tissue that was so crucial and executed so expertly in the second film. Even jumping from one era to another in the second film carried with it a certain dichotomy of wealth, power, and impending doom. Here, scenes happen on their own merit, without much regard for a forward thrust, or what came before and after. It makes everything stop and start too often, masking the most powerful moments in a fog of unmotivated storytelling. Intimacy has been replaced with formality. This is a story told in boardrooms, not bedrooms. Well, except maybe one bedroom, the controversial love story between cousins, Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola), and the bastard son of the late Sonny, Vincent (Andy Garcia). More on them later.

There are grand moments, some of which are the best of their kind in the trilogy. Michael’s confession to the priest in Vatican City stands out, a captivatingly raw, emotional moment in the trilogy. It’s framed beautifully, and Michael’s catharsis is heartbreaking. Pacino is giving it his all, as he will do, and the faults of this film do not lie at his feet. Consider one of the most famous lines in this trilogy, after the totally over-the-top and mishandled assassination-via-chopper scene atop the hotel; it’s here where Michael, crumbling beneath the stress of pushing the boulder up the mountain only to lose it at the top repeatedly, says “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” It’s delivered perfectly, full of anger and self-hatred, and it’s this third film at its finest moment. But again, it came on the heels of that ill-conceived big action moment, and the big action moment was an abject failure of poor choreography, excess, and way too many oranges to stay in the spirit of that wonderfully subtle visual cue.

The Godfather Part III

And of course, there is the story of Vincent romancing his cousin, Mary. Much of the surface disdain for The Godfather III lies with both this subplot and the performance of Sofia Coppola. Never mind she was Francis Ford Coppola’s third choice for the role, Sofia’s performance is an eyesore. There’s really no way around that. In her defense, or in the film’s defense perhaps, Mary could very well be an ill-fitting part in this Corleone family, a valley girl who’s spent many years away from her family and has trouble re-acclimating. That’s a hopeful diagnosis at best, but even that doesn’t get her off the hook. And the relationship between her and Vincent was, and still remains, controversial. But in the traditional Old World Italian families, incest was not as frowned upon. Even Michael’s disapproval of their relationship is motivated more by Vincent taking over the criminal empire and putting Mary in danger, less by their blood ties. Sure, it was still (rightfully) taboo, but more common than some may realize. Regardless of this historical context, the love story is weird and distracting.

The final moments of The Godfather: Part III work feverishly to redeem the first two thirds of aimless hopelessness. The opera house sequence, reminiscent of the assassinations in the original film as Michael is at his godson’s baptism, involves an assassin trying to get into position to kill Michael. For what, I can’t really remember. This is part of the problem, but taking the final act on its own accord it works better than anything else in the film. Willis masters the look he had lost for two hours prior, and the suspense builds as Coppola cuts back and forth between assassin and potential victim. When the initial attempt is foiled, we convene outside for the final scene on the steps of the opera house.

Even here, Sofia Coppola’s poor acting nearly ruins what is an effective and incredibly emotional moment in the film. Having Pacino’s scream muted, showing the reactions of those around him, is truly powerful. And then we see those memories of Michael, dancing with the women in his life, and just as he and Kay dance into the shadows, we transition to Michael, old and alone. His death is arguably the only perfect moment in the film, shot from a distance to enhance his isolation. And so the Corelone legacy ends with Michael’s face in the dirt, his only company what appears to be a stray dog. It’s a fittingly bleak, depressing closure for a character who systematically destroyed his life and the lives of those he loved most in the world.

Despite this pitch perfect closing to the Godfather trilogy, The Godfather: Part III cannot get out of its own way too often. It’s one of those movies where people remember not liking having not seen it in years and years, so for that it deserves a second look. The biggest obstacle of the film is the ability for us to divorce ourself from the previous films, and appreciate what works in this one as a standalone. The Godfather: Part III is necessary, I’m sure of it, but it still creates less closure, and more longing for what could have been.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.