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.