There’s no two ways about it. “The Godfather” is one of, if not the greatest, film sagas of all time. It’s brilliant writing, complex characters and powerful visual storytelling displayed the dark and twisted yet surprisingly human side of the mafia world of the 1900s. The first two installments revolutionized cinema on both a technological and emotional level. It’s an accomplishment that sadly due to the politically correct society of today, may never be replicated.
So, what happens when 16 years later you attempt to write a sequel that recaptures the same magic of the first two Godfather films? A depressing and ultimately disappointing sequel that is “The Godfather Part III.”
Unlike the first two films, “The Godfather Part III” failed to win the Oscar for best picture and has yet to be selected for preservation by the American National Film Registry. Critical reception was mixed and audiences were disappointed with the confusing narratives, controversial casting and its depressing overtone.
Now, almost 30 years later, “Godfather Part III” is considered by many to be one of the worst sequels ever made. With all of that in mind, is it really deserving of all the hate it receives? Even if a sequel isn’t as good as its predecessor, it can still contain something of worth can’t it?
Being released 16 years after “The Godfather Part II,” the events of “The Godfather Part III” take place in the late 70s. The story, from what I can gather being how needlessly complicated it is, centers around an aged Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) attempting to legitimize the Corleone family by abandoning the criminal aspect of the family business and purchasing the Vatican shares in an international real estate holding company, Immobiliare.
Along for the ride is Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Santino “Sonny” Corleone, who finds himself at odds with a steward in charge of the criminal aspect of the crumbling Corleone empire in New York, Joey Zaza. Following a confrontation in which Vincent accuses Zasa of insulting Michael behind his back, Michael agrees to take Vincent under his wing, impressed with his reckless yet passionate loyalty to the Corleone family.
However, life for the Corleone family becomes tense when ghosts of Michael’s checkered past return to haunt him in his endeavors to purify the family business. All the while, unbenounced to him, his daughter Mary (Sophia Coppela) becomes incestuously attracted to Vincent.
Now, pinpointing exactly what went wrong with this final chapter in Coppola’s beloved trilogy can be narrowed down to the complexity of the plot and the expectations of the audience.
“The Godfather Part III” is rather difficult to follow, involving Vatican Bank deals, formentioned incest and ties to the real-life death of Pope Paul VI.
While the first two films partially centered around business deals and gangster- backstabbing, they mostly served as the backdrop to the core drama of the Corleone family. Even if you couldn’t keep up with the criminal business dealings between rivaling criminal factions, the story of Michael Corleone being forced by circumstance to take his father’s place at the cost of his soul was emotionally gripping and easy to follow.
At its heart, “The Godfather Part III” still focuses on the internal conflict of the Corleone Family as the result of their years of corrupt dealings and deceit begin to overtake them. However, the family drama is often lost in the clutter of the rest of the rather depressing story.
On that note, possibly the biggest fault of the film wasn’t the messy storyline, nor was it Sophia Coppola’s “performance” as Mary Corleone but rather the depressing ending and deflated portrayal of Michael Corleone.
By the time it hit theaters on Christmas day of 1990, the first two Godfather films had become beloved staples of pop culture. Walking into the theatre, fans wanted a loud, roaring, action-packed mafia movie along the lines of “Goodfellas.” Audiences wanted to see the unstoppable, slick- haired, Michael Corleone of old, rather than a sick, decrepit old man.
What attracted viewers of this franchise was how it told three parts of one narrative, which was the Corleone family’s rise to power and how that power affected them morally. Viewers got to see Vito Corleone’s tragic childhood and his triumphant rise to power while Michael was being roped into the family business to take his father’s place and how that power ultimately corrupts his soul. This was the true Godfather trilogy, the rise of Vito and the moral fall of Michael.
But still, when you take into account the original intentions of the director, this movie becomes far more interesting than one might initially perceive. Originally, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, the author of the original novel, wanted the third film to be called “The Death of Michael Corleone” before studios rejected this title in favor of the title we know now.
Coppola intended to show the results of Michael’s years of lying, cheating, stealing and betrayal and the immense regret he wrestled with. Unlike the first two films, which were well-intertwined, “The Godfather Part III,” is an epilogue to the Godfather Saga as a whole.
And when you take that into account, it’s easier not to judge “Godfather III” as a final chapter in a three-part story but rather the aftermath of a powerful three part story.
WIth all of that said, does “Godfather III” hold up as it’s own thing? In my opinion, yes. Much like “Spider-man 3,” “Godfather III” is the weakest of the series but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. The cinematography is still impressive and the music keeps in theme with the previous movies and hidden in all the cluster of Vatican Bank deals and bad acting is a powerful story about a man who is desperate for redemption but is so entangled in the past he can neither forgive others or most of all, himself.
While not as fresh or exciting as Michael Corleone snuffing out anyone in his way, seeing an older MIchael Corleone struggle with grief and regret as his mistakes cost him what he loves most is almost equally compelling.
As bad as Sophia Coppola’s acting is, the final scene where she pays the price for her father’s sins is genuinely gut-wrenching. Michael’s silent scream as he holds his dead daughter who was killed by the bullets intended for him remains one of the most haunting scenes in the entire franchise. Al Pacino’s ability to convey such bitter sorrow purely through facial expression is commendable.
So while it’s not quite as refined as the first two films, “The Godfather Part III” is still a beautiful tragedy with emotional stakes that stand shoulder to shoulder with the first two films. Yes, there are more problems than its predecessors but it’s still visually interesting and emotionally gripping enough to make it worth more than one viewing.
It’s a misunderstood Shakespearean tragedy that poignantly portrays the twilight years of a once-powerful Mafia Don, now weighed down with regret and self-loathing. It may not be the best offering in the series, but it is an offer that’s hard to refuse.
Samuel J. Claude