The Godfather Part III Revisited
The Godfather, Part III is one of the most commonly disdained and might also be one of the most misunderstood and unfairly underestimated films in movie history. It is certainly one of the most maligned and perpetually controversial films. Even fifteen years after its release, it is still reflexively used as a point of reference for how bad a film can be. Like any film, though, it deserves to be seen on its own terms, free of the hullabaloo that engulfed it when it first appeared. Wiping away all of that grime and dust, there is a very surprising secret at the heart of the whole Godfather III fiasco – the film itself is actually a masterpiece.
In a sense, the project was doomed to failure from the beginning. There was no way, and no reason, for the film to be good. It was instigated by Paramount, not by director Francis Ford Coppola nor author Mario Puzo. It was made for money. Coppola, a dynamic and major force in the new American cinema of the 1970’s, had virtually none of his power or prestige left by 1989. He was a hired man, not an auteur. On top of this, constant re-writes and casting dilemmas were like dark clouds hanging over the production even before shooting began; (Winona Ryder famously dropped out at the last minute and key actor Robert Duvall refused to participate due to a squabble over billing).
Furthermore, the film no doubt suffered in comparison to other films of 1990 that fell into the same general genre. Released late in the year, it seemed, so to speak, too little too late in a year filled with exceptional crime and mob-related movies; including GoodFellas, King of New York, and Miller’s Crossing, to name a few. Rather than being judged on its own merits, it was seen as simply another indictment against Coppola’s relevance as a director.
There are other, more philosophical, reasons why the film was destined to fail. The major one is that too much time had passed. It was no longer possible to make it a genuine continuation of the same sensibility and style that the filmmakers exuded in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974), (both of which bear the unusual distinction of being enormously popular and great works of cinema). As with the revived Star Wars franchise, (picking up in 1999 after a sixteen year hiatus), it was nearly impossible for a new Godfather film to, in a sense, feel right. It just couldn’t be the same.
Coppola, of course, knew this all along. Though working steadily on respectable projects over the previous decade, he could never shake the image of impulsive excess and irresponsibility, which had hounded him since the days of Apocalypse Now (1979) and One from the Heart (1982). At the time of The Godfather, Part II, he had been on top of the world. The studio had given him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the film, insisting only that it not be called Part II but something more in the tradition of sequels, like Son of the Godfather or The Godfather Returns. It was a statement of Coppola’s power at the time that he prevailed over the studio in the very title of the film. Ironically, sixteen years later, Coppola, accurately sensing that this new film could not really exist in the same sphere as the earlier two, requested that the film not be called Part III at all, but The Death of Michael Corleone. Since the first two films were a complete saga, with no need for a continuation, he much preferred to look at the new chapter as an extended coda, a completely different film only set in the familiar Godfather universe.
Time worked against this film in a variety of ways. Not only were expectations far too high to satisfy, but attitudes in film audiences had changed drastically too. The 1970’s were the golden age of progressive American films and a time of pronounced cynicism. It was not surprising or inappropriate at all for major films to have downbeat endings; (i.e.: Chinatown, The Parallax View, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc.) This changed overnight in the 80’s, however. The 80’s were the time of Rocky, of Rambo, of The Terminator and Die Hard. Heroes, even anti-heroes, needed to be strong and they needed to win; or else why even go to the movies?
In dramatic contrast to this trend, Coppola envisioned a portrait of Michael Corleone as a broken, drained dictator, someone who was incapable of enjoying the fruits of power and had instead let it rob him of all humanity. At the same time, he would be agonizingly conscious of this flaw and overwhelmed with a desire to redeem himself. Instead of the smooth, cunning and triumphant Michael from the old films, Coppola would give us a gray, stooped man, withered with corruption and suffering from diabetes and a heart condition. For Coppola, the image took shape for him when he settled on the character’s hair; not the slicked black hair everyone remembered, but a Stalinesque, silver buzz cut. Coppola had almost single-handedly invented the post-modern gangster film, but now he was solely interested in sabotaging the romanticized image of mobsters that have been, and still are, so common in the movies. He wanted Michael Corleone to receive his comeuppance.
It could be argued that Coppola giveth and he taketh away. In one move, he simultaneously grants and withholds what the public wants. It hungers for more Godfather, but not this kind of Godfather. Early storyline proposals from Paramount executives concerned outlandish action-movie scenarios, with the family getting wrapped up in CIA affairs in Cuba or bloody territorial wars in Las Vegas, with steely Michael always outsmarting his enemies. Coppola rejected all of it. He wanted his film to be brooding and operatic, like the previous ones. The people wanted blood, but Part III makes no claims to be an action film, and it just barely qualifies as a gangster film.
The greatest sticking point of all concerning The Godfather, Part III revolved around the controversial casting by Coppola of his own 19-year old daughter Sofia as Mary Corleone, (the role originally intended for Winona Ryder). A novice to film, her performance was ravaged with unusual malice and bitterness by the media. It was voted, (jokingly and seriously), as the worst of the year, if not the decade. As a way of punishing and humiliating Francis Coppola, his daughter was singled out as the living symbol of how miserably her father had failed. Her weakness as an actress was really, supposedly, his weakness as a director. The stinging irony of this line of attack was lost on nearly everyone except Coppola himself. In the film, Michael will witness his daughter Mary dying from a bullet meant for him. As in life, the daughter pays for the father’s mistakes.
Whether or not Coppola was wise in casting Sofia for this role is pointless to debate. She is there, as much a part of the film as Al Pacino, Diane Keaton or Coppola himself. In retrospect, she obviously does not act badly at all; but merely seems out of place and overpowered by the heavyweights surrounding her. This, however, was exactly what Coppola had found necessary for the part. He wanted Mary to be not of the world of the Corleones, to be so foreign as to almost seem a visitor from some other film. (Both children are treated this way; Franc D’Ambrosio, playing her brother Anthony, was a singer but not a trained actor). In the long run, it can hardly be disputed that, for better or worse, Sofia Coppola bore this detached and ephemeral quality that her father sought, and that she passes much more plausibly as the offspring of Al Pacino than Winona Ryder ever could have.
The film takes place in 1979, roughly twenty years after the events of Part II. It is truly a different world. The Corleone family is no longer concerned with petty rackets and drugs in New York, nor even with Las Vegas gambling. It is, for all intents and purposes, technically legitimate. Michael, still the feared and respected patriarch of the family, has sold everything that was part of what he considered the family business, and is in the process of disassociating himself from the Commission, the Mafia’s nationwide board-of-directors.
As the film begins, Michael is being honored by the Catholic Church with a Papal decoration, the highest honor the Church can bestow on a layman. For him, it is a step closer to his conception of respectability, and yet the businessman in him cannot keep from agreeing to and proposing shady deals that envelop him even deeper into the affairs of both the Church and the Mafia. Everything is a quid pro quo. He receives his award, but he has to make a huge donation to a Church-run charity. He agrees to bail out the Church’s debt, but he demands its share of the control in a huge conglomerate. He announces his severance with the Commission, but must first appease each mob chieftain with generous gifts. And so on, and so on.
As in Parts I and II, we are introduced to the major characters in a long preliminary family function, where innocuous celebrating is contrasted with whispered conferences in dimly lit adjacent rooms. Here, Coppola also establishes the changes that have occurred since the end of Part II. Tom Hagen, for example, has died. Kay (Diane Keaton) has remarried and is now on better terms with her and Michael’s children than Michael himself. The most striking changes, and the ones that require the most adjustment, are those that have occurred in Michael and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). Michael is noticeably weaker, but more gregarious. As though being chased by time, he seems almost desperate to be liked more than feared. Connie, meanwhile, is no longer the quiet beauty of the first film, nor the superficial party girl from the second. She has reinvented herself as a matronly, calculating harridan; thin, hair pulled back, clad in black dresses with brooches on the chest like a general’s medals. She has taken the place of a wife and mother for Michael, who has been robbed of both.
In these early party sequences, comprising the whole first quarter of the film, Coppola cleverly seduces us into the world of these characters. Continuing their work from the previous films, production designer Dean Tavoularis and cinematographer Gordon Willis do outstanding work. Everything in the Corleone home is a soothing earth tone; wardrobe and décor are in golden browns. The place feels warm and comfortable, and we tend to luxuriate in the familiar coziness of the sequence, excusing, as the family itself does, the horrible things that are being discussed over in the corner or in the next room.
Michael’s quandaries begin to accumulate faster than he can deal with them. The more he tries to wriggle his way out of the quagmire, the faster he sinks. He is bent on an idea of leaving the family legacy clean and legitimate before he dies. He wants to leave his children a perfectly respectable heritage, and he refuses to accept the impossibility of his goal. There is no escaping the fact that he has built his empire on violence and murder. He knows this deep down, and the guilt he constantly wards off is tempered only by the sincerity of his hope for redemption. The best opportunity placed before him is to put the Church in his debt. Disturbed, but cooperative, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) muses to Michael during their negotiation, “It seems that in today’s world the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness.” He assures Michael that their deal will make the Corleone family so powerful and wealthy that its entire history will be washed clean. This, of course, is what Michael wants to hear, but he refuses to see the conflict of interest; for him, it’s all the same. “Never underestimate the power of forgiveness,” he replies.
Not only does Michael need to wrap up all his business as neatly as possible, but he has to quell a multitude of smaller, irritating family issues that could stand in the way of his goal. The local thugs who run what used to be the family-owned rackets still come to him to settle disputes. The main quarrel at the moment is between Vincent (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael’s older brother Sonny, and Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), a John Gotti-type media-savvy gangster. There are also problems within Michael’s immediate family. His naïve daughter Mary is growing suspicious about the legality of the foundation she runs in her father’s name. His son Anthony, against his wishes, is abandoning law school to sing opera. When Michael sides with Vincent against Zasa and asks him to join him, it is hard not to sense that he is trying to fill Anthony’s shoes with the son he wish he had; not a sensitive artiste but a streetwise fighter.
Meanwhile, the greedy Commission is unhappy with Michael’s wheelings and dealings. Not only do they not want him leaving the organization, but now they also insist upon sharing in his majority control of International Immobilaire, a massive land-owning Italian company previously managed by the Vatican. They intend for their own money to be washed clean by the Church’s blessing along with Michael’s. The mob leaders send Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) to intermediate with Michael and request a meeting. Michael, knowing that money is the only thing that can temporarily satiate these gangsters, offers them huge gifts from the money he earned by recently selling his casinos in Las Vegas. Still, though, they want more. Only a botched assassination attempt against the entire Commission, of which he was an intended victim too, saves him from their grasping claws.
The attack on the Commission conference in an Atlantic City hotel room is one of the most memorable set-pieces of the film. Coppola handles it with great subtlety. As the gangsters talk, a low rumbling is heard. An arresting zoom from the end of the room to Michael’s uncomprehending face creates a great sense of mounting terror. Suddenly, the glass windows explode inward under a barrage of machine gun fire from helicopters outside. By keeping the assassins invisible, Coppola stresses the impersonality of mob violence. The scene also shows how sluggish Michael has become. It is only Vincent’s quick thinking that saves them both.
While putting the pieces of the puzzle together, Michael utters the most famous line from the film: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Like all the other catchphrases from the Godfather saga, this one also seems representative of the basic conflicts and themes of the films. Michael finally realizes what has been clear for some time, that the more he struggles, the tighter the noose becomes. Just at this moment, while on the verge of announcing who his real enemy is, he suffers a mild diabetic stroke. During his recuperation, Vincent and Connie take it upon themselves to order Zasa’s death. When he recovers, Michael is furious not only because he knows that Zasa was too small-time to be the real culprit, but because now this drags him even further into mob affairs.
More than ever before, Coppola makes it clear that there is no honor among thieves. Despite all their big talk about family loyalty and “honor,” there is nothing but hypocrisy and duplicity in virtually every character. Kay, it turns out, has come to see Michael not out of affection, but merely to back Anthony in his decision to pursue music. Michael is taken aback to realize that she still has as much contempt for him as ever. Vincent begins to court Mary without Michael’s knowledge, and still sees her even after his uncle learns the truth and forbids the romance to continue. Even Connie falters in her loyalty. Seeing Michael’s apparent softness and Vincent’s ambition, she tells Vincent, “You’re the only one left in this family with my father’s strength.” Michael himself, of course, is carrying the greatest lie of all within him, the fact that he ordered the death of his brother Fredo years earlier. Only Kay knows the truth, though Anthony suspects.
Connie’s comments about their father, Don Vito Corleone, are only one of many moments where the late patriarch’s memory is evoked. Michael is weighed down by the need to live up to his father’s legend. Roughly in his early sixties, he is nevertheless still surrounded by old men who remember Vito as the model of leadership. Don Altobello prefaces his petitions to Michael by invoking his friendship with Vito. Connie stands reverently before a painting of her father that hangs in Michael’s office. The face in the portrait is obscured in shadow, but there is that cat in the man’s arms that we remember from the first film. Even Michael conjures images of his father’s clout and mystique when he wants to intimidate a colleague. To the wily Altobello, he says ominously, “I learned many things from my father,” (including, we are led to assume, how to detect friend from foe).
To resolve the dispute of the sale of the Immobilaire stock and to get to the bottom of the conspiracy against him, Michael goes to Italy, taking Vincent with him. Here he confronts a coalition that dwarfs even the Commission in terms of power. In the Vatican meets a handful of men representing religious, government and business concerns in Italy and throughout the world. These include Archbishop Gilday, as proxy for the Pope, Keinzig (Helmut Berger), a Swiss banker working for the Vatican Bank, and most importantly a man named Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), whose affiliation is never defined but who seems to have sway over the government, business and organized crime in Italy.
Lucchesi and the others object to Michael’s control of Immobilaire and now refuse to ratify the deal struck by Michael and Gilday. He says that before handing over the corporation to Michael, “All our ships must sail in the same direction.” Realizing he has been stonewalled and betrayed, Michael storms through the Vatican, exclaiming, “We’re back with the Borgias!” He goes to Don Tommasino (Vittorio Duse) for advice, the crippled man who protected him in Sicily in Part I. When asked who could possibly have ordered the deaths of the entire American Commission and pressured the Vatican deal, Tommasino, without hesitating, says, “Only Lucchesi can reach between these two worlds.”
Overwhelmed at the scale of corruption in the upper echelons of power in both church and state, Michael marvels at his inability to escape it. In a quiet, reflective scene with Connie, (who administers his insulin injection), he comments on how he always assumed he could build his way out of crime and corruption, but the higher he goes, the more crooked everything is. “Politics and crime,” he whispers to Don Tommasino in Italian, “they’re the same thing.”
This underscores one of the central themes of the Godfather films; crime as a metaphor for power, something that bureaucratically expands in order to justify its existence and to prosper. In Part I, the Corleone family is primarily concerned with numbers rackets and fixing police and judges. As we meet them, the family leaders are still just contemplating moving into narcotics. In Part II, rich from drug money, the family has moved to Las Vegas to manage casinos. Here, they also get involved in national politics, as when Michael tampers with a Senate hearing on the Mafia. By Part III, Michael is rubbing shoulders with players on a global scale, who, in the name of the Church and big business, wield power over governments all over the earth.
To Michael, the course he is on is only the natural one set before him by his father, and he is perplexed as to why everything isn’t working out as planned. In Part I, Vito confessed to Michael that he never wanted him to be part of the family business, that he wanted something greater and more respectable for Michael. Ever since then, Michael has been trying to push the family higher and higher through society, but he attained the power without the commensurate respect his father enjoyed in much more modest circumstances.
Finally realizing who his enemies are, Michael sends Vincent to get closer to Lucchesi through Altobello. Altobello reveals himself to be incredibly crafty in his old age. In public he fumbles and hobbles and pretends to be interested in nothing but music and good food. But in private, he is sharp and alert, and he noticeably no longer has any need for his cane.
Whether he believes Vincent’s act or not is uncertain, but he introduces him to Don Lucchesi anyway, a balding, middle-aged man in horn-rimmed glasses who travels with an armed escort. When Vincent humbly expresses his ignorance and inexperience and asks Lucchesi to become his mentor, Lucchesi imparts his first lesson, using the language of the streets that Vincent will understand; “Finance is a gun; politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.” Soon, Vincent reports to Michael that it has been Lucchesi pulling the strings all along and that he controls the highest levels of power in the Vatican, the government and the Mafia. “Maybe even P2,” he adds, referring to the mysterious renegade freemason lodge that was pushed out into the open during the Vatican’s 1982 bank scandal. Though outlawed, P2 is still credited with holding immense power behind the scenes of Italian politics.
Lucchesi was based by Coppola and Puzo on a powerful Italian politician named Giulio Andreotti, though they never named him or referenced him elsewhere for fear of being charged with slander. Andreotti was elected Prime Minister of Italy seven times, and was serving his 1989-1991 term during the production and release of The Godfather, Part III. He was suspected of criminal ties his entire career, and in 2002, he was finally convicted of ordering the murder of a banker in 1982, (an even depicted in the film with the character Keinzig). Though Coppola wisely opts against portraying actual people in his films, he often gives fairly obvious clues as to their origins, as when Hyman Roth in Part II utters a line ascribed to Meyer Lansky; “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” Lucchesi betrays his real life inspiration, Andreotti, when Calo (Franco Citti), Michael’s bodyguard, whispers in his ear, “Power wears out those who don’t have it.” This was one of the most famous of Andreotti’s many arcane pronouncements.
The extent of Lucchesi’s power is displayed in the subplot surrounding the election of a new Pope. Again, Coppola and Puzo draw liberally from actual headlines; this time from the peculiar events surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. In the film, Archbishop Gilday has spent a great deal of time taking advantage of a long-ailing Pope. When the latter finally expires, though, everyone holds their breath to see what stance the new Pope will take on how things have been run. To the dismay of the powers that be, the popular Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), a sincere and honest cleric, is elected overwhelmingly. He immediately announces a house-cleaning for the Vatican, and Gilday and Keinzig go scurrying for cover. Lucchesi intervenes, though, arranging for the new Pope to sip some poison along with his bedtime tea.
Going hand-in-hand with such cold applications of power in this world is incessant violence. Over and over again, Michael is made to confront the nature and validity of violence. Surely, he has never pitied any of his victims, including his own brother, and he has had no qualms about ordering the deaths of hundreds of people over the years. Only at this late stage of the game, when he is on the verge of losing everything, does he begin to understand that there is a price to pay for violence that he could never calculate. In discussing Michael’s crimes, Coppola explained the ripple effect of violence. When you kill someone, he said, you’re not just killing that person, but you are causing tremendous pain to all of that person’s loved ones. This is a type of sin for which there can be no real atonement.
Additionally, violence begets violence. After killing two assailants sent by Joey Zasa, Vincent is reprimanded by Michael, who says that now Zasa will have to respond in kind. When Don Tommasino is murdered, Calo pleads with Michael to avenge the death. “Blood calls for blood,” he cries. Listening in the next room, Kay whispers, “It never ends.” Even though Michael seems to learn slowly, he is still powerless to stop the tide of vengeance and violence. After the failed assassination attempt on his own life, he forbids any retribution, but Connie and Vincent take matters into their own hands anyway while Michael is incapacitated.
Visiting Sicily as a family, Michael attempts to share the positive aspects of his cultural history with Kay, Anthony and Mary. The children are receptive, but Kay is understandably wary. When Michael offers her a personally guided tour of Sicily to help her appreciate the family heritage a little better, she off-handedly responds; “Oh, I think I understand it well enough.” There is little empathy in her heart for a land in which entire villages are devoid of men due to endless vendettas. There is a potential moment of comprehension when Anthony asks his father, “How can such a beautiful country be so violent?” Michael’s response, though genuine, seems painfully inadequate. Even Coppola struggles to reconcile the Italian’s tremendously rich culture with its capacity for violence. The Italian people love so intensely, he explains, that when that love is betrayed, the debt can only be paid in blood.
Coppola’s treatment of violence on film is as complicated as his own feelings towards it. He has never been an exploitative director, but the extreme nature of his stories has often required applications of violence. On the first Godfather film, he was compelled to add more violence by the studio, which was forever threatening to replace him with a so-called “violence director.” His attitude about the issue was that violence was something so odious to him that the only way he could make it bearable is to give it some kind of eccentricity that will make it memorable. Hence, the garroting victim’s foot kicking through the windshield in Part I and the rising and falling light during the murder of Fanucci in Part II. In Part III, the violence is even more muted, coming in sporadic bursts, culminating in Lucchesi’s gory murder at the hands of a vindictive Calo. Coppola’s use of violence is troubling because he is so intelligent, because he is trying so hard not to make it seem attractive. In his very attempts to minimize it or make it stark instead of gratuitous, he still somehow makes it aesthetically pleasing. As in Sam Peckinpah’s films, the context of violence is often terrible even though the depiction is beautiful.
Sensing the terrible paradox into which he is locked, Michael allows himself, in a moment of reflection, to let his guard down. On Don Tommasino’s recommendation, he pays a visit to Cardinal Lamberto for advice on how to overcome Lucchesi’s sway with the Vatican. As soon as their conversation begins, however, Michael suffers a brief diabetic reaction. Lamberto takes advantage of Michael’s weakened condition to preach. He even persuades Michael to make a confession. Though making it clear that he will not repent, Michael agrees. Almost immediately, he is overcome with emotion. “I had my brother killed,” he admits, probably for the first time ever; “I killed my mother’s son. I killed my father’s son.” Obviously, the death of Fredo has never stopped haunting Michael in all these years. If he has one overriding regret, this is it. Lamberto is kind but firm. “Your crimes are terrible,” he says, “and it is just that you suffer.”
Michael’s attempt at contrition is earnest, but at the same time, half-hearted. Inwardly, he can never let himself forget that this is a world where his type of justice, not God’s, prevails. After all, what can be made of world where good men like Lamberto and Tommasino perish and men like Lucchesi control everything? How can God allow his church to become so riddled with corruption that its priorities are almost identical to those of the Mafia? These are the real causes of Michael’s suffering. He feels guilt, but he is even more worried about his guilt being in vain if there is no law to the universe in the end. He has spent his life outfoxing those who would fool him.
There is little he can do to recompense the world for his sins. He will not likely turn himself in to the authorities or seek personal forgiveness from the families of each and every one of his victims. He wants the peace of repentance without the penalty. The best he can offer God is a pathetic promise to “sin to more” if only given an opportunity to redeem himself. In Part II, Kay called him “blind,” and what he is blind to in this film is the fact that every moment is his opportunity to change. He is a man who is forever planning to change, but never does.
The death of Tommasino strikes Michael hard. Sitting beside the coffin at Tommasino’s viewing, he addresses the dead man’s body. “Why were you so loved while I was so feared?” In this somber and moving sequence, it is interesting that Michael makes his vow to sin no more only before God and a corpse, not anyone who will hold him to his word in this lifetime.
He is a broken man now, and he puts up no protest to Vincent’s assumption of power. The only demand he makes is that Vincent abandon Mary. That, he says, is “the price you pay for the life you choose.” In this way, he foreshadows his own penalty for the redemption he wants; for both he and Vincent, the price will be Mary. As Vincent is christened the new boss, Michael allows himself to be slowly escorted out of the room like a hospital patient by Connie. “It’s okay,” she assures him, “Vincent knows what to do.”
Tragically, Michael assumes that his retirement will somehow relieve him of most of his problems. Like any figurehead, though, he is just as much a target for his enemies as ever before. As he goes to attend his son’s operatic debut in Palermo, we are shown the gears turning in the many plots he has inadvertently triggered. Not only are Lucchesi and Altobello’s plots against the Pope and Michael set in motion, but Vincent, now unleashed, also sends out his people to take care of all the Corleones' enemies.
As in the first two films, the climax to Part III is a cross-section of clips of the various murders. This montage probably outdoes Parts I and II in terms of scope, spanning as it does so much time and location. The most interesting assassination, though, is reserved for Connie, who emerges as a Lucrezia Borgia-type spider woman who kills for the sake of the family. To deal with the treacherous Don Altobello, (who has come to the opera expecting to witness Michael’s death), she brings him a poisoned canole. Intuitively suspecting her, he makes her taste it first, which she does. Whether she is affected by the poison or not is unknown, but Altobello wolfs down the rest of the canole during the performance while Connie watches him coldly through her opera glasses.
Outside, the expert assassin hired by Altobello finally catches up with Michael and fires at him on the steps of the opera house. The bullet goes through his arm and strikes Mary squarely in the abdomen. As she dies at his feet, Michael experiences the worst disaster of his entire life. He screams, but there is no sound. Coppola’s depiction of Michael’s breakdown emphasizes the complete hollowness of his soul. There is nothing left at all except pain. It is a still portrait of abject horror, reminiscent of Münch’s painting The Scream.
In a brief epilogue taking place some years later, we see Michael as a very old man, sitting alone, (just as he did at the end of Part II), in a Sicilian palazzo. Slowly, he slumps over and then falls out of his chair to the ground. Many people criticize this postscript as superfluous and indulgent, but it was an essential part of Coppola’s mission. For personal and professional reasons, he wanted to lay Michael Corleone to rest. He had always born mixed feelings about creating such a popular icon. With this film, he came to terms not only with Michael’s legacy, but with his own as the director of the Godfather films. Even now, any reference to Coppola is followed by a mention of the films in parentheses. The character is very close to him. Michael made his career, in a sense. Michael’s sister and daughter are portrayed by Coppola’s sister and daughter. Although he never ruled out the possibility of a Godfather, Part IV until the death of collaborator Mario Puzo, it is hard not to see the end of Part III as a eulogy, as Coppola’s final statement on the entire Godfather phenomenon.
The film in its entirety is elegantly put together, with Coppola’s assured, stately direction becoming a welcome respite in the era of Scorsese’s and Spike Lee’s jumpy nervousness. Every scene is well handled and crucial to the whole, and the sequences flow together with an extremely pleasing logic. In going so against the grain of early 90’s trends in filmmaking, Coppola’s style gives Godfather III a timeless quality that could end up making it last longer than many of its contemporaries.
In the end, Coppola managed to make the film that no one wanted to see, The Death of Michael Corleone. Instead of it being the wrong film altogether, it is really just the right film with the wrong title. Despite all the interference from the studio and the bad press he endured, he followed his heart to make this film when he could much more easily have produced a trendy, crowd-pleasing gangster movie that would have made everyone happy. In retrospect, though, we are certainly better off with the intensely personal and powerful film we know as The Godfather, Part III, not just because it improves with age or because it is its director’s pure vision, but because, taken on its own merits and free of the context of its controversies, it happens to be a masterwork.