Edit Content

Main Menu

Fonts of Knowledge


Recommended Sites


We’re back with the Borgias!


The Godfather Part III

It’s a shame the weight of attention directed at The Godfather Part III related to that casting decision, because in terms of plot, if not so much its execution, this is the most fascinating of the trilogy. Michael Corleone thinks he’s finally out of the life of crime, but the further he scales the pyramid of the respectable world, the more unconscionable he realises it is. Weaving in real-world conspiracy is perhaps Francis Ford Coppola’s trump card here, and this would surely have merited more discussion – or an audibly uncomfortable silence – had all eyes not been on poor Sofia.

Coppola had famously resisted any overtures to make a third instalment, and even now you’ll find him confirming there was no need for a Part II; in that case, it was purely the studio’s desire for a sequel that led to the Best Picture Oscar winner. Over the years, various scripts and attempts at a viable second sequel were initiated by Paramount, dating back more than a decade prior to the picture’s eventual release (that one, improbably, had Tony working for the CIA). Even the eventual version underwent significant changes, notably when Robert Duvall opted out (over money) and the George Hamilton replaced him as consigliere (it seems that, in the Tom Hagen take, Michael dies in Tom’s arms and Sofia’s Mary doesn’t die at all).

In that regard, Coppola has said The Godfather Part III doesn’t feel complete without Tom, but I’ll readily admit I didn’t find the character that essential or compelling in earlier encounters; I don’t think it really misses him, and even referencing him via John Savage feels superfluous. And the corollary is that George Hamilton – whose casting was much mocked but is actually really good, in a smoothy lawyer way you’d expect of a smoothy lawyer. Or, per Pauline Kael, “as if he were born encased in a stretch limo” – is sadly underserved.

Coppola only capitulated to the project’s inevitability in the wake of One from the Heart running Zoetrope aground. He contested for Part III to be regarded as an epilogue and titled The Death of Michael Corleone (he belatedly got his way for the recent re-edit). Ironically, given the decade-and-a-half gap between chapters, The Godfather Part III fell victim to a rushed script and production, chasing a Paramount-prescribed release date and finishing its edit dangerously close to the cut-off for Academy nominations (which probably worked in its favour, as there was insufficient time to reflect that no, actually, it didn’t deserve those nods. Well, most of them). As it was, Coppola would add nine minutes back in for home video (it’s this version I’m revisiting here), and the original release wouldn’t see the light of day again until this year.

Perhaps, had production not been under such pressure, there might have been a pause for Winona Ryder to recover from the exhaustion that led to her exiting as Mary (she had just finished Mermaids); Coppola picked her after Julia Roberts turned the role down in favour of Pretty Woman (wise, career-wise) and Madge was pegged as too old (the question would be, who’d have been worse: her or the eventual choice?) There’s certainly little doubt those considered post-Ryder (Laura San Giacomo, Linda Fiorentino and Annabella Sciorra) would have been vastly superior to Sofia (and probably incrementally better than Ryder too). The charges of nepotism were and are entirely justified, and she was the unfortunate victim of such parental pressure. Dad claimed the press were “using [my] daughter to attack me”. No Francis, they were attacking you for using your daughter.

She was unsurprisingly a focus for the picture’s problems, then. Kael, contrarian to the end (this was one of her last half-dozen reviews) claimed she “grew to like” Sofia, and that she had a “lovely and unusual presence”. Were the personality Sofia brings to the role – a shy, sleepy docility and pervading awkwardness – germane to the character, that would be one thing, but she’s supposed to be heading up the Vito Corleone Foundation and is seen coming on to Vincent from the get-go.

The fundamental problem, though, is that you don’t believe their romantic tryst for a moment (Siskel: “he’s more like her babysitter”), and there’s a general lack of presence that punctures the impact of both their doomed romance (Vincent having to reject her for prize of running the business seems like no big ask) and her loss on Michael and Kay (Pacino plays the scene for all he’s worth, but it runs, as he does occasionally here, to the wrong side of ripe ham).

There’s also the occasional line that raises an eyebrow. On their first meeting, Vincent professes not to remember Mary: “I had a lot of girlfriends when I was fifteen”. “Eight-year-olds?” she asks. “Especially eight-year-olds” he responds. An innocuous bit of joshing, you might think, but less so when one considers Coppola’s patronage of Victor Salva; the movie that saw Salva’s prosecution was funded by Coppola and released a couple of years before, and he subsequently exec-produced two of the Jeepers Creepers. Coppola addressed the subject thus: “We don’t have to embrace the person in believing that their art is a contribution to society”. Which sounds very noble, but this just happens to involve Hollywood’s most guarded (open) secret, and Coppola’s almost obtuse defence of the deed rings alarm bells (“Victor was practically a child himself”. Yes, a 29-year-old “child”, in contrast to his twelve-year-old victim). And then there’s Francis’ earlier draft of Megalopolis – which he currently has gearing up, unless it’s a case of faux-Coppola, in a similar manner to “Spielberg’s” The Fablemans – featuring his hero in a tryst with a fifteen-year-old*.

Kay: You know, I preferred you when you were a common Mafia hood.

The thrust for Part III’s plot is Michael’s attempt at atonement and failure to achieve the same. Kael opined that “we’re supposed to believe in a remorseful, basically good Michael Corleone”. I have to admit, while I wouldn’t quite label them crocodile tears, I never quite believe that’s the character we see here. Rather, it is, as she also suggested, about his grieving “for the loss of possibilities in himself”. As he says to Kay, “I had a whole different destiny planned”. Yes, he breaks down when confessing his crimes to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), but such histrionics are not entirely remorseful. Everything we see of him is backed by “What could I do? I spent my life protecting my family”; it’s about justifying himself in response to Kay’s moral superiority (she’s rather one note, through no fault of Keaton and her supra-perm).

Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin no more” he avers, but minutes later has capitulated to the inevitable. He has, as Kay notes, shamefully bought the Vatican’s approval and apparel of legitimacy. He uses his daughter’s innocence as front for the Victor Corleone Foundation (which “donates” funds to the Vatican such as “$100m for the poor of Sicily”). Were he sincere, we’d see it, but he is not. His are false platitudes. “I would burn in hell to keep you safe” he says, but his intransigence – where it counts – imperils Mary and leads to her death.

Kael relates his character here to a King Lear phase, reflecting Coppola’s own experience of his empire slipping away: “Michael, he announced openly, without shame, was going through what he himself had been going through”. This new, vulnerable Michael is also, to a degree, redux Pacino. Where once Michael was all about simmering, interiority and external composure, now we have later-period Al gasket blowing. What everyone remembers about Part III Michael is Pacino in over-sized suits, suffering scenery-rupturing strokes and yelling “It was not what I wanted!” And the famous “They pull me back in”. It’s no surprise he didn’t get nominated for the role; at least the OTT in Dick Tracy, for which he did, fitted the part (I see Michael is said to die in 1997; cue some fall-off-a-chair acting).

Vincent: I don’t want out. I want the power to preserve the family.

So The Godfather Part III also revolves around the contender to the throne, and the one area the movie entirely scores, performance wise, is with Garcia’s combustible Vincent. It’s a great showing, and it’s also the dividing line between young Garcia, when he seemed like a firebrand actor to watch, and the progressively less interesting one we encountered during the subsequent decade, culminating in his bland villainous turn in the Ocean’s Eleven remake.  Simply, Garcia’s a lot of fun throughout, energising the film in a manner that pushes against its tendency towards fait accompli. Admittedly, there’s something missing in his transition from Sonny-esque fury to a leader calculating precision hits, but the sight of him enjoying having his ring kissed says it all about his ambitions. It’s also telling that his early encounters with Bridget Fonda’s reporter – she is, as one might expect, superb in a mere couple of scenes – are engaged, amusing and flirtatious in a manner entirely missing from the later doomed love story (“You could hurt somebody with those” he comments of Fonda’s legs).

Other characters also make an impression. Connie as the Lady Macbeth dark mother is an interesting development, pushing Vincent into power and decisive, violent action. Joe Mantegna is buoyant as Joey Zasa; you’d have been surprised, had he not showed up in the picture in some capacity. Less successful is Eli Wallach’s obsequious and obvious Don Altobello (apparently, Sinatra wanted too much money); we know from the first he’s duplicitous rotten egg.

He’s also emblematic of what one might call the Lucas handbook of sequel engineering. There’s a process-driven approach here that encourages a feeling of nagging familiarity, sometimes welcome, others demonstrably less so. As before, we open on a celebration. As before (Part II), a long-standing ally turns out to be an enemy. As before, Sicily is the series’ Tatooine (only this time, “Let me show you Sicily. The real Sicily” is a slightly lame indulgence). As per Lucas, there is an emphasis on generational saga (if Vito is Vader/Obi Wan and Michael is Luke, does that mean Vincent is the Amazing Wonder Rey? Had Part III been a Kennedy production, it would have surely switched title to The Godmother). As before, there are bloody set pieces (Sonny’s auto slaughter becomes a helicopter assassination) and intercutting plans in effect for the third act’s climax. Coppola also appears to be giving Lucas notes for the prequels with some of the indigestible and expository dialogue (“Our man inside the Vatican says there’s a plot against the Pope”; “The Pope has powerful enemies. We may not be in time to save him”).

Vincent: It’s not just a bad banking deal. These guys are butchers.
Michael: What guys?
Vincent: Lucchesi. He controls all of them. Altabello, the Archbishop, other people higher up, the P2 maybe. Secret unknown. They’re running things.

Kael wasn’t entirely dismissive of the film. She considered it a “lumbering” movie but was also “relieved” by its resemblance to the first two, in relation to which “it’s too amorphous to damage our feelings”: “and there’s always something happening”. She also noted its greatest trump card: “The Godfather Part III is about worldwide corruption”. Michael, in his inroads with the Vatican, quickly learns his dreams of being freshly laundered aren’t so straightforward. Not only do his old associates stir up trouble (he rebuffs their requests to come along for the ride) but his new ones are even more problematic (“Vipers, all of them”). The early plaudit of “You’re the new Rockefeller. A philanthropist” is truer than he realises (Rockefeller’s United Fruit Company was part of the Cuba plotline in The Godfather Part II). Unlike Rockefeller, though, Michael wants to be actuallylegit, not just appear to be legit.

Michael: But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.

Time Out’s Geoff Andrew considered the “unwise insertion of elements of real life… flounders because so many details are skated over that the exact implications of Michael’s brush with Old World power brokers are often obscured”. Obscured or not, I feel that, far from unwise, the inclusion of conspiracy theories regarding the death of Pope John Paul I and the Vatican banking scandal of a few years later go much of the way to compensating for the picture’s other shortcomings. It’s meaty stuff, and in many ways, it’s surprising that a major studio would have been willing to go there. Coppola transposes a different guy for the Pope (here Cardinal Lamberto, who absolved Michael, there Albino Luciani), and different names of the major parties, but the principles are very similar, focussing on the murder (by poisoning) of the pontiff after only 33 days in office.

Archbishop Gilday: It seems in today’s world, the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness.

Michael does a deal with the Vatican Bank at the outset, providing $600m towards their gaping debts in return for a controlling share in Immobiliare (reflecting Societa General Immobiliare, which became Group SGI and was controlled by Opus Dei). The Head of Vatican Bank has his counterpart (Paul Marcinius, Archbishop Gilday here – per David Yallop’s In God’s Name), while its banker Frederick Keinszig equates to Roberto Calvi of Banco Ambrosiano and Masonic Lodge Propaganda Due: you know, the fellow who was found hanging from a bridge in London.

So Coppola is fanning the flames of conspiracy theories relating to endemic (confirmed) corruption in the Vatican Bank and its links to freemasonry. The actual Bank owned a significant shareholding in Banco Ambrosiano (and lost about a quarter of a billion dollars in the bank’s $3.5bn collapse in 1982). Calvi was in P2 (Propaganda Due), an illegal Italian lodge. In the movie, his equivalent is murdered at Vincent’s orders, one of a string of assassinations after Michael’s deal turns sour, with his shareholding held up and the revealed connection of the mob (Lucchesi) to the Vatican and attempts on Michael’s life.  Vincent’s surmisal of the instigators is vague at best though – “Secret unknown” – so Coppola is stopping short of the upper-echelon Elite in favour of Lucchesi (the name of a Paramount exec cited by Bruce Robinson in relation to his troubled Jennifer 8). As such, despite the apparent drive to causing a stir with the subject matter, this could arguably be your standard Hollywood reveal by damage limitation; there’s nothing to see here beyond the immediate layer of corruption.

Nevertheless, the case(s) and its murk are ongoing and have inspired various ensuing investigations. There was no evidence of church involvement, naturally – Calvi was guilty of fiscal misconduct – so the Vatican was granted immunity. Like the private secretary who “jumped” to her death the day before his body was found, Calvi was initially ruled a suicide. And then an open verdict. And then, in 2002, a forensic report established he was murdered, with a police investigation reopened in 2003 tying him to death of Sergio Vaccari, who died with papers showing P2 members names (P2 being “state within a state” “shadow government”; Berlusconi was a member, which did him no harm in his aspirations to becoming PM).  Various Sicilian Mafiosi confirmed he was offed for losing Mafia funds and/or Solidarity funds. In a 2005 trial, murder charges were thrown out, although the death was ruled murder.

Regarding the Pope, the very idea that a sincere representative could somehow make his way to the highest office of an intrinsically corrupt institution takes some swallowing, of course. Yallop claimed John Paul I died with list of high-ranking freemasons in the Vatican’s Roman Curia in his hand, and that it was a conspiracy between archbishops (three) and mafia (three). Later publishing on the subject claimed links to CIA (of course) via their funding the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, with the same hand behind the scandal and the murder. Other still came up with commies (always blame Russia!)

I’d agree with Kael’s assessment that Coppola “resorts to operatic pyrotechnics that don’t come out of anything”, yet they’re still engaging operatic pyrotechnics (complete with actual opera), for the most part. I’d suggest the film has generally come back round to the status of being underrated, after the initial slew of Oscar nods indicated the opposite. About the only nomination you might argue was truly legit was Garcia, and no one’s going to argue Pesci was the wrong pick for the win that year.

As for Part IV, the mooted furthering of the saga has been discussed a few times in recent years, with Garcia clearly its biggest supporter (unsurprising, given his drift into unexceptional supporting roles). He sparked on the idea of DiCaprio as a young Sonny (I can’t see it myself; Caan is rough and ready, Leo the extreme reverse, even in baked Alaska). Francis was enthusiastic enough to hire Mario to write a script, but then Puzo died and it fizzled out.” Coppola, probably rightly, noted “Partly what happens is that by the time you get to the fourth, you are using up the same stuff a fourth time“. Perhaps they should get retcon genius David Gordon Green to pick up from Part II once he has worked his magic on The Exorcist.

The sad thing is that this was probably Coppola’s last chance to dazzle. He had all that money to play with on Dracula (and it made a mint, in the Top 10 worldwide for 1992), but did nothing to capitalise on that clout. Instead, he “opted” to retreat to smaller projects for the last quarter of a century (I mean, he says opted, but after the debacle of Jack, who’d have you?) The Godfather was probably best left where it was, in the ’70s, and we certainly don’t need pallid making-of productions. Obviously, Duvall wasn’t in the grip of some divine revelation when he said The Godfather Part III it was just done for the money. No shit, but so was Part II. The only difference is that Part III was compromised. They pulled Francis back in, and like Michael, he did it to himself.

*Addendum 12/04/23: Taking anything Hollywood at face value seems inherently unwise. That applies not only to areas that appear hunky dory, but also ones that look inherently suspect. So one might not necessarily assume a guy who visibly lent his support to a convicted paedophile, in a town where such activities are customarily kept from view, is going to be a White Hat. But Coppola is one, it seems – his attitude to the individual being one of a civic-minded belief in rehabilitation – and one has to wonder if the recently wrapped production of his long-planned Megalopolis is a reflection of the scythe taken to Hollywood in the past couple of years.

Our Score

Click to Confirm Your Score
[Total: 0 Average: 0]

Most Popular

What is currently passing for knowledge around here.

  • I thought this was the cousins’ dinner.
    I thought this was the cousins’ dinner.
  • Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.
    Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.
  • Send in the Clones: Donald Marshall and the Underworld
    Esoterica Now
    Send in the Clones: Donald Marshall and the Underworld
  • The Vaccine
    The Q & A
    The Vaccine
  • You’ve got a lot to learn, jungle man.
    You’ve got a lot to learn, jungle man.
  • movies 1980 to 1999
    movies 1980 to 1999