Saturday, October 15, 2005

Rethinking The Godfather Part III

I saw The Godfather, Part III on TV last night, and I think its actually a much better film than I remember. It’s certainly flawed (though I think The Godfather, Part II is not without its problems, despite its formidable reputation) but I think it does hold its own with the other two films. The film is not a classic, but it is quite fascinating in its own right; and both similar to and different from the other films in some fairly interesting ways. Most of all, the central idea behind the film is a stroke of genius. Using the Vatican Bank scandals of the 1970s as the primary background for the film’s plot allows Francis Ford Coppola to make a brilliant point on the subject of corruption. In my opinion, all of the Godfather films are essentially about corruption, both personal and political corruption. Michael Corleone is, after all, nothing more than a once-good man who makes a bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly riches and power. He gains the world and loses his soul. In this film, Coppola is making the point that everyone is corrupted, even the personification of spirituality in the Catholic Church. The briefly seen character of Luchese, the sinister politician-financier who sits behind his desk in horn-rimmed glasses and proclaims that he who builds on the people builds on mud, may be the most evil and terrifying character in all the Godfather films; and he is also one of the most legitimate in terms of the broader society. The doomed Pope (Raf Vallone is extraordinary in the role) who seems to be the only truly good man in the film, underscores this point wonderfully, he may be the only truly pure character in the entire Godfather saga, and, of course, his fate is sealed from the beginning.

Seeing the film ten years later also seems to minimize the flaws that were most obviously glaring when it came out. The absence of Robert Duvall didn’t strike me as particularly significant this time around, and Sofia Coppola’s performance, while certainly not spectacular, gets the job done. She’s supposed to be an innocent and naïve child who has no idea of the dangers of the world she lives in, and that comes across pretty well. She has a few clunky lines, but its not an existentially disastrous performance. For some reason, the passage of time has also enhanced the good things in the film; particularly, Andy Garcia’s performance as the alternately ruthless and romantic Vincent. Somehow, Garcia manages to pull off a character who can be both an amoral killer and an innocent boy who has lost his heart to the wrong woman, and manages to make both sides believable. The best thing in the film, however, is undoubtedly Talia Shire’s role of Connie Corleone, who has turned from a powerless abused wife and widow to a Lady Macbeth of formidable destructive capabilities. Her final moment, in which she dons a black cloak in the face of a senseless and terrible tragedy, is a truly haunting image. Coppola and Mario Puzo really hit on something when they decided to take what was a relatively minor and pitiful character in the other two films and turn her into a vengeful angel of death.

Coppola himself pointed to Shakespeare as one of the inspirations for Part III, and there is certainly a sense of inevitable and meaningless tragedy around the film. King Lear was undoubtedly on the writers’ minds when they were concocting this final chapter. I think this may go a long way to explaining the real reason why this film was so disliked when it came out. Put simply, it’s a massive downer. The other two Godfather films, however dark they were, nonetheless end with some kind of victory for Michael Corleone, however high the price may be. Part III, however, ends in total desolation and wretchedness. Like Lear, Michael is left with nothing at the end of this film. Quite literally everything he has valued in his life, even the corrupting force of worldly power and achievement, has been wiped out by fate and, it is implied, the vengeance of God. Coppola refuses to let his main character off the hook, and in this sense, Part III may be the most morally sure of all three films. Sooner or later, Coppola seems to be saying, we all pay for our sins. This is a conclusion which is only hinted at in the other two films, and there is no doubt that it both elevates this flawed epilogue and makes its final moments extraordinarily difficult to watch. It may be this, Coppola’s refusal to grant the audience the satisfaction of still believing that, somehow, crime does pay, that ultimately gave this film its undeservedly bad reputation.

29 Comments:

Blogger Daniel said...

I agree and disagree with some of what you have to say. As it so happens I just saw the Godfather II yesterday, that truly was a master piece. Godfather III was a good film but the weak point for me was of all things Al Pacino’s performance, it was too over the top for Michael Corleone. Yes it could be said that the character has changed over the years but I don’t buy it. Andy Garcia is amazing, Sofia Coppola makes me cringe when she is on screen (she has turned out to be a good director though) and Talia Shire is chilling with her performance (what would Adrian say). All and all not a bad film.

There is a show on AMC here called Sunday Morning Shoot Out that is hosted by a couple of Hollywood insiders. They talk about the “business” part of the movies. They did a couple of episodes with Francis Ford Coppola, he stated flat out that he did Godfather III for the money and for no other reason.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Pastorius said...

I agree that Godfather III needs to be reassessed. It is a brilliant film, which gains much of it's brilliance from it's willingness to take huge chances. And, alas, it is that willingness to take chances which dooms it to it's abysmal failures.

In that sense, to criticize for it's failings is akin to listening to the John Coltrane Quartet (Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, Garrison) perform a thirty minute version of A Love Supreme, only to criticize them for some moments where they stray from the melody.

The movie deserves to be commended for where it does suceed, for it suceeds beautifully, in sublime moments.

The scene where Michael makes his confession is, perhaps, the most chilling, redemptive, and yet tragic scene in the history of cinema. For that scene alone it is worth sitting through the entire three hour movie.

Sofia Coppola is awful (although, I agree with Daniel, she has gone on to be a great director).

Andy Garcia's part is better than credited, but, there is not support for the growth he achieves through the course of the film.

Talia Shire is wondrous.

I must say, Benjamin, I don't agree with your assessment that Michael Corleone is "a once-good man who makes a bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly riches and power."

The surpassing greatness of the Godfather Trilogy is founded on the truth that Michael's downfall was not predicated on a lust for riches, but on his desire to sustain his father's legacy, no matter how evil that legacy may have become.

Evil crept into the life of the Corleones, with all the subtelty of a snake.

7:47 AM  
Blogger benjamin said...

I guess Sofia Coppola is one of those things that most people are not going to agree with me on. I just don't think she's that bad. Undoubtedly, it would have been better to have a professional actress in the part (though Coppola's choice of Winona Ryder doesn't strike me as promising) but I don't think she's a complete disaster. She's basically playing herself, and that's probably why her father put her in the film.

Pastorius, I think you have a good point about Michael being slowly drawn into evil, but I don't really agree with it. I think he's presented as someone who is in denial of his darkest capabilities and, when they are forced out of them, finds that he likes them. His character reminds me of the scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence admits he enjoys killing. I think Michael's tragedy is that he can never bring himself to admit that he has evil in him until its too late, and its taken him over. The truth that I think Coppola is trying to get at in Part III (he hints at it in Brando's "death as a monster" scene in the first film) is that the Corleone family, however much fun they may be to watch, are evil, were evil from the beginning, and have to pay for their sins.

I agree with you completely about assessing the film for what works, because so much of it does work, especially the central idea of using the Vatican Bank.

Daniel, I love Part II as well, but I think it has more problems than most critics admit. Mainly, the 1950s segments are far too complicated plot-wise. I think its a film with some amazing moments, but its more flawed than its reputation would suggest. Just one man's opinion. Like Part III, the good stuff in it is so good that we overlook its problems because of them. I think its interesting that when Part II first came out the reviews were fairly mixed. It also was not a huge finanical success compared to its predecessor. People forget that when comparing it to Part III.

I've also heard that Coppola did Part III purely for money, although (from what I gather) that's pretty much why he made the other two as well. There's a story about George Lucas convincing Coppola to do the first film by saying "We need the money, what have we got to lose?" Coppola grabbed it and made it his own, and I'd say the same is true of the whole series.

Thank you both for the terrific comments. I've been hoping people would start talking movies a bit on this site.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also do not agree with your assessment that Michael Corleone is "a once-good man who makes a bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly riches and power." He freely decided to join his father ("I'm with you, pop") when he sees the family threatened and expands the Corleone empire, not for riches, but to avoid dancing on the string held by another man. Those strings have two ends, as Godfather III makes clear.

The reuniting of Michael and Kate grated on me - she went against the family and his banishment of her in part II would never be rescinded. But I chalked this up to an older, reflective Michael and enjoyed the scenes they had toghether.

Sofia Coppola is too plain to be the offspring of Pacino and Keaton. And dark, handsome Garcia would not fall for such a dog - I didn't buy the fact that he 'lost his heart to her.' But maybe the casting was serendipitously right and he was using her to re-enter the family.

Enjoyed the post and will see the movie again, soon.

12:37 AM  
Blogger benjamin said...

Anonymous-
A very good point about Michael. He's a very complicated character and maybe what drives him into evil is meant to be ambiguous. I think, though, that there is more than just exterior forces at work, something in Michael propels him towards what he becomes. Maybe he never would have become the man he did if his father hadn't been shot, but one gets the sense that there's something in him from the beginning that is much darker than he lets on. There's a coldness to the way he tells the Luca Brasi story at the beginning that's quite chilling. His statement "that's my family, its not me" sounds almost like an afterthought.

Like I said, the Sofia thing is just too subjective an issue to reach a conclusion. I think its in the eye of the beholder. To me the ultimate question is whether her presence ruins the film. I personally don't think it does, but she definately isn't an asset.

Diane Keaton's role is also problematic. She sort of has to be there, but she doesn't have much to do. Although she is fascinating because she's basically the only character who really sees Michael for what he is and tells him so. The moment when she tells him that she doesn't fear him, but she dreads him, is very ominous scene when you see it knowing the ending of the film. Its also interesting that the first thing Michael confesses is "I betrayed my wife". Her reaction in the final scene is also shattering. I'm glad she was there, if only for continuity's sake.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I rethink my comments (posted as anonymous at the end of this string)? Bravo channel in the States has been playing G-III several times over the past month and I have seen the whole thing in bits and pieces. I am seeing this movie again as a more mature individual, so I can I please modify my earlier comments on Sofia Coppola, which were based on seeing this movie years agos and for which I am suffering Catholic guilt?

Sofia Coppola has a tough role - she must act like a spoiled child and stamp her foot in some scenes and seduce Andy Garcia as a sexy woman in others. She really accomplishes both though she is given weak material. And I criticized her looks and that was wrong: she has a sexy body, gorgeous eyes and skin and this beautiful long dark hair. She has a nose that is not Hollywood, but it is interesting in its own right.

The movie is gorgeous to look at - every scene is a tableau. The plot was involved but the casting was so interesting - every face is so recognizable that the attentive viewer should be able to follow it and the strong fan will love seeing those faces from GII. I have had friends also confused by the 1950 plot-line in G-II - sheesh, Coppola almost hits you over the head with the importance of Michael's realization that Fredo knew Johnny Ola.

Everyone has written of the best scenes and performances in G-III so I will leave this (and leave this thread alone) with my nickel's worth of psychoanalysis that struck me after the final scene. Vito divided his bad character traits among his children: his pathological violence to Sonny, his cold analytical psychopathy to Michael, his selfish fickleness to Fredo and his softness to the shortcomings of others to Connie. He divided the best of his traits as well: his zest for life, his cool-headedness, his friendly and goofy side and his warm heart, respectively. By balancing his traits, he could hold the family together but none of these one trick ponies had the skills to do so. So Vito dies, chasing the grandson, the future of the family, around in a pleasant game, at a family gathering. Michael dies alone. And I did shed a tear at this powerful scene, cuz it was a great series of films.

OK you can close this thread - PS I am still enjoying the antichomskite - you are a beautiful writer who never nips around the edges of the great professors arguments but rather you enter the middle of his crystal shop and smash-smash-smash. Any idea if he sees you stuff?

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Anonymous Melissa said...

I think that, while Sophia's performance was not stellar, she was the victim of playing a part you aren't supposed to like... incest makes people uncomfortable for many reasons and, while there are plenty of people who play outright villains audiences love, someone portraying this sort of role will fall victim to audiences displeasure even if the actress was a Hollywood darling.

I also think that part of the poor reception of the movie as a whole was the corruption of the church... the other movies had to make a great show of saying the subject matter was about the mob rather than all Italians... in this, while most people love the first Godfather especially, they successfully dodged the bullet that hit "The Death of Michael Corleone"... aka Godfather 3

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Blogger pastor maker said...

Anyone who lauds Part II whilst condemning Sofia Coppola's acting and lines in Part III needs to re-watch the excruciatingly awful scene in Part II where Kay tells Michael about her abortion.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sofia Coppola is traditionally sexy, a real woman, but viewed in what is now an unconventional light. Her ethnicity is what most people point to as unattractive.

Classically Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish, African, Middle Eastern women have strong features; noses, eye brows, jaw lines, strikingly contrasting eyes with skin tone. Alluring in the non-American interpretation of Anglo-Western standards (see Pam Anderson types and their artificial ilk...despite the Beach Boys, we don't all wish they could be California Girls)

Innocence is alluring, as is her dark features, temperment, and frankly, as a reiteration, oozing virginal comeliness portrayed figuritively and literally (due to her lack of "acting chops").

Her performance is spot on, Wynonna Ryder would have been abysmal as the material and setting would have failed her as much as her not-even-close to a Corleone believability factor. Marissa Tomei (sp?) ala My Cousin Vinny without the camp would have been the correct choice.

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have reviewed several of the comments that have been posted here..okay well first Michael Corleone will never be viewed as evil in my eyes..lets always remember that he solely joined his father's business because he wanted to save the corleone legacy. Although he was against it. "Mikey" was a good kid who firmly believed in right and wrong. However he was forced to behave corrupt which angered him. I believe Michael was the most ruthless Don because he killed off any and every enemy he had. I believe he killed Fredo because he loved him too much to not have him in his life and be alive. With that said, he could not have him in his life and trust him. What would Santino have done??? I often wonder. Godfather part 3 could have portrayed a stronger Michael. But if you think about it he is thr same Michael from part one..

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Part 3, not as good. But, it is good. Garcia nailed it. Al Pacino's performance okay, but a little too over the top. Part 1 the best. The scene in Part 1 when Michael is about to shoot the drug dealer and police chief, AMAZING! Best acting. That caliber of intensity and genuineness was missing in any Part 3 scenes.

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