Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Love Letter to a Polarizing Film

The Godfather: Part III, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1990 (4.5/5)

I've always had a soft spot for The Godfather: Part III.

But it's often declared as one of the worst sequels ever. For a film that has cemented its name in the universe of cinematic crap, it was nominated for six Academy Awards back when it was released, including Best Picture. Gene Siskel placed it on his Top Ten of 1990 and Roger Ebert rewarded the film three-and-a-half stars. The general critical response at the time was mostly positive and the film currently holds a 66% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. And it was moderately successful at the box office, grossing around $66 million in the U.S. alone.

Despite the initial warm welcoming, the film has always gotten a cold reception from its audience and it only gets colder as it ages.

Godfather purists--meaning fans of the first two films--have always been the most apparent critics of Part III. I realize that it's not a perfect film--the ending is insanely confusing (even after my three viewings), Sofia Coppola is mostly an incapable actress, the incestuous relationship is ridiculous, the whole son-wanting-to-be-an-opera-singer thing is forced, and the metaphorical dialogue is nearly laughable--but it's an admirable piece of work for a film that was purely intended to get director Francis Ford Coppola out of bankruptcy.

Part III pulls its audience back into the sepia-tinted world of the Corleone family, also known as the violent, inescapable purgatory of Don Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) life. It's been nearly twenty years since we've seen the Michael in Part II, sitting alone outside his Tahoe home, and contemplating everything he had lost--his brother, his wife, and his dreams of a legitimate family business. Michael became his worst enemy--and still is.

Michael has since transformed himself into a respectable businessman and philanthropist. For the past twenty years, he has been pushing his family business towards legitimacy, fulfilling a promise he made to his ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) before their marriage. Although Michael is an honored man, he's a lonely one too. In old age, he wants the comfort of family, but his opera-singing son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) wants nothing to do with the family business and Kay has moved on to a more secure, conventional marriage to a judge. All he really has left is his naively vulnerable daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), and all the greedy men who wants to make money off his crime empire.

Things shake up when Michael's bastard nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) enters the picture. Vincent is as aggressive, intuitive, and trigger-crazy as his late father, Santino. Vincent is tired of working for the small-time, photogenic, showman gangster, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), and wants to work for Michael. At first, Michael is hesitant, but he's getting old, sick, and sentimental--he gives in to Vincent and his little sister Connie's (Talia Shire) wishes, and generously offers Vincent the chance to be part of the Corleone family, where Vincent's true roots are.

Vincent's not shy to show what he's got: He wants to get rid of Joey Zasa and quickly wins the fragile, romantic heart of his cousin, Mary. Michael realizes that Vincent's violent and romantic escapades are dangerous, but he sees potential in this ambitious punk: Vincent has his father's headstrong, dedicated heart, and his grandfather's calculting negotiation skills of pragmatism and reason. Most of all, Michael sees a man he can trust with the future of the family business.

There is this subplot involving a real estate company that is partially run by the Vatican that the Corleone family is trying to gain control of. There is money to be made and all the other crime families want in. But all that seems to fade to the background. This is a film about a man who wants to redeem himself and hopes to God that it's not too late to be saved.

There is a powerful scene in the film where Michael confesses his sins to a priest. It's beautifully filmed in the garden and it's one of the most poignant scenes I've ever seen--and one of the most memorable scenes Pacino has ever filmed. Michael confesses that he's betrayed his wife, himself, and killed numerous men, including his own brother. He breaks down because he knows that even if God forgives him, he can never forgive himself.

Pacino is the foundation of the Godfather series. I don't think any of the films would ever be as effective if it weren't for him. I've never revered Marlon Brando's legendary performance as Don Vito Corleone. To me, The Godfather has always been about Pacino's Michael and that intense, alluring complexity that is so central to Pacino's performance. There has never been a cinematic villain that I have sympathized with more than Michael Corleone and I don't think there ever will be. Part II shows the rise of a calculating crime boss and Part III shows the heartbreaking downfall of a tainted dreamer; Pacino understands both sides immensely well.

Pacino also has fabulous chemistry with Keaton, who plays the love of Michael's life and the mother of his children, Kay. Kay knows several secrets about Michael's history and acts as the conscience he doesn't necessarily want, but knows he needs. She still cares about him, but after all these years of bullets and broken promises, it's hard for her to not feel some disdain for his mafia lifestyle. Pacino and Keaton's scenes together in Sicily are precious; they both acknowledge a life that they could once attain, but destiny turned out differently. It's subtley romantic, but ultimately heartbreaking. It's also two great actors at their finest.

But bad habits are hard to break: There is an excellent scene where Vincent shaves Michael and Michael tells Vincent to "sell his soul" to the enemy, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), the Hyman Roth of Part III. The entire scene intercuts with Vincent trying to convince Don Altobello that he's changing sides. It's a scene filmed with some suspenseful creativity and shows with gentle, subtle touches that Michael can still run the business and as long as he's the head of the business, he's going to run it to the best of his abilities.

Part III is shot with glorious mastery by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Everything from the dark walls of the Corleone home to the sun-drenched country of Sicily is illustrated beautifully. The signature score by Nino Rota still soars with atmospheric wonder to this world that we've known so long and continuously return to.

The numerous murders at the end of the film are rather confusing and sometimes even slow, but they are ingeniously intercut with a live Italian opera, starring Michael's son, Anthony.

There seems to be a lot of controversy about Sofia Coppola's performance. The role originally went to Winona Ryder, who had to drop out because she was sick when production began. Ryder, being an established professional actress, would have been an appropriate choice for Mary. But I find it hard to blame Coppola for her lackluster performance because her father made the decision to put her on celluoid.

Coppola, however amateur her performance is, shockingly brings a certain indescribable vulnerability and warmth to her performance. There is a scene near the end of the film where Mary's heart is undeniably in shambles and she just stares on, with all the sadness and tears of a lost schoolgirl. At that point, it's difficult not to feel an iota of sympathy for her.

Consider this my love letter to Part III. The film is a quintessential crime epic and blockbuster of the nineties (along with GoodFellas, which was released in the same year), shot with mastery and skill, and told with heart, compassion, and emotional complexity. It's a rare film in a batch of mindless modern shoot-em-ups. There will never be another film series quite like The Godfather and I might as well cherish its delicately flawed--yet completely heartbreaking--finale.


  1. a four star review of a two star movie. no matter what you drink it in, cool aid is still cool aid.
    and i am one of five people in the world who did not like 'goodfellas'. the ice pick in the back of the neck was the final turn-off.

  2. Richard, I've always loved The Godfather: Part III. No matter how much I try to convince myself that it's a film with a load of flaws, I can't deny how emotionally connected I am to everything on screen. It's a story of a conflicted, regretful man. And Pacino plays him so darn well...

    I love GoodFellas too. It's a breezy, entertaining crime movie. But it's also well-made and well-acted. Sure, it doesn't have as much heart as The Godfather, but it shows a different side to the criminal underworld: the wiseguys at the bottom of the food chain.

  3. 'goodfellas': . i'm afraid there was too much gore for me; you are made of tougher stuff. i never made it past the ice pick. and half the time, i didn't know what they were talking about. obviously, i have been more sheltered than you.

  4. Good review Marcy, I thought Godfather Part 3 was a very good film. Its impressive how they got so many of the old cast members to return.