Catching Up with the Classics — THE GODFATHER: PART III (1990)

After decades of denial, Julian finally watches the black sheep finale of an iconic trilogy

Film 60 of 115: THE GODFATHER: PART III (1990)

Walking out of the Paramount Theater last year after their annual double feature of The Godfather: Parts I & II, I was adamant I was going to write a piece someday about how I’ll never see The Godfather: Part III. Together, those two films tell such a rich, complete story, one that brings a family tree to fruition and rot over the course of generations. Each character and sequence is so memorable, so immediately affecting. To insist on a further continuation of the story does a disservice to “superfluous.”

But it’s not like I had the option to pretend Coppola’s third film didn’t exist. Reading up on the film, even though it was made in the most dire of straits and in the most rushed of circumstances, it was still an exhausting and determined effort for all involved. I hoped that to spend any effort at all on a film like Godfather: Part III would mean there’s still something to the Corleone saga left to tell. It’s a bit of cinematic curiosity that gnawed at me in the creation of all my film catch-up lists, but one that I kept pushing further and further down the list because of how much I love the two preceding Godfathers. So when it came to this project, I had to include Part III and finally rip off the band-aid.

It’s 1979: Michael Corleone is in his twilight years, honored by the Vatican for his humanitarian efforts, and the figurehead of wholly legitimate businesses. He’s spent his years since the emotional inferno of Part II wholly distancing himself from his own family’s bloody legacy — most of all his own irredeemable actions. For the most part, his actions are inwardly in vain, as Michael tortures himself for all the lives and relationships he’s cast aside in seizing and maintaining power. Now that he’s got little else to show for his efforts, Michael obsesses over his potential legacy, and what better way to seal that for his children than to partner up with the holiest of institutions — the Vatican?

It’s hard not to read further into Michael’s weary declaration of “just when I was out, they pull me back in.” Part III is a film that spends much of its time ruminating on the previous films, as Michael struggles to forge himself into a good person despite everyone and everything reminding him he’s anything but. Likewise, Part III itself feels like a film that wants to be its own rumination on modern-day power, in a world that’s traded Gangland street killings for high-rise boardroom mergers. The dregs of the past are still hung about the proceedings, though — thugs still break into apartments at night, brutal murders take place in bloody streets. The violence of the past two films feels inescapable, despite how modern things have gotten. Both the world of the film and the film itself feel plagued with the inability to escape their own reputations and legacies.

But what caught me off guard was how much Coppola leaned into this same anxious feeling of extraneousness throughout Part III, right from the opening frames of the ruined Corleone mansion. It goes into a handful of deep cuts from the lore of Parts I and II, down to making Andy Garcia’s Vincent’s mother a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her character from the opening of Part I. It revisits classic locations from the first two films, and is unafraid to show how ruinous they’ve become — down to the Sicilian town where Vito was born. Throughout, Coppola is eager to show the ravages of time take effect on his world and characters — as well as the specter of death they’re all barreling towards.

Like Coppola, everyone involved is certainly trying their best given what they have. Pacino still knocks it out of the park as Michael, now fully living the moments he briefly aged up for at the end of Part II. Andy Garcia is the standout of our new cast, painting Vincent very much as Michael’s shadow, someone who is certainly heading down the same path as our lead with Michael doing everything in his power to fend off Vincent from facing the same consequences he once did. And for the decades of venom Sofia Coppola’s gotten from critics and audiences alike for her performance as Mary Corleone (albeit not wholly undeserved), she’s not that bad. It’s hard to believe there was such a pre-production fight over such a weak character, but in light of it all, Coppola does what she can with a paper-thin character.

And Mary isn’t the worst out of some of Part III’s many, many lows. One of the best things about Parts I and II are how they treat their villains — while they’re sprawling sagas, there are concentrated main conflicts, ones with clearly-delineated antagonists that have emotional weight to their actions. With Part III, we have one mid-tier villain who’s dispatched early on, a puppet master who lurks too far in the shadows to feel as connected as everyone makes him out to be, and a litany of corrupt religious figureheads that link the film to a compelling real-world context that…well, still feel like they don’t amount to much. As such, Part III feels like it constantly stops and starts, and by the time the film’s finally gotten moving, we’re moving towards the climax.

It’s symptomatic of Part III’s biggest issue in having a plot that flits to and fro between what it finds most interesting without wholly committing to anything meaningful. The monetization of the church is a compelling story — and it tracks in a delicious way that Michael turns to the largest of public institutions in his attempts both to go legitimate and to assuage his guilt. But then we’re pulled away by the infighting caused by the power vacuum of Michael’s abandonment of the mob, which, Eli Wallach notwithstanding, we got plenty of in Part II. And we haven’t even gotten to Michael’s naturally torrential family life…Part III suffers in its attempts to catch up with every single character before we even have a chance to justify why we’re starting here in the first place.

What’s most disappointing to me about Part III is how it treats Diane Keaton’s Kay. Don’t get me wrong — like the others, Keaton does what she can with her material, and she nails how Kay should be after her dynamic, fierce performances in earlier installments. But it’s frustrating how Kay goes from someone who’s finally had the gumption to stand up to Michael and flee with her family’s real interests in mind, and begins this film determined to protect her family from Michael’s influence…to someone slowly coming back to someone she believed was a monster. It’s hard not to feel betrayed by this direction for one of my favorite characters in the trilogy.

Talia Shire, on the other hand — man, I love how she got to let loose in this. From someone who was subject to the violent whims of the men in her life in the last few parts, Connie fully seizes control of who she is throughout Part III. She acts as a Devil on both Michael and Vincent’s shoulders, slowly diverting them back onto the path of mob justice — but she’s still not someone who’s turned evil out of convenience. She’s learned from her family’s actions, and enacts a far more effective slow burn of wrath more akin to her father’s modus operandi than any of her brothers could attempt.

And, for all its flaws, it’s hard to deny just how effective most of Godfather: Part III actually is. Michael’s guilt-ridden compulsion to be better at all costs works well throughout the film, especially as he resorts to his aged manipulative tactics to keep those he loves safe. His confession scene is wrought with appropriate guilt and malice, and it’s so satisfying to hear a man of God tell Michael not just that he’s irredeemable, but that he couldn’t recognize just how to redeem himself if he tried. It’s a blindness that looms throughout this final chapter, a willful ignorance towards what’s inevitably coming that even colors how we see the past two films. Part III has many, many callbacks to its predecessors, from its split-second usage of past scenes in their old locations, to the staging and reverse-role blocking of certain scenes (read: Michael in the hospital). If the Godfather: Part III falls under the weight of its past iterations, one can’t help but admire how Coppola surrenders to their legacy, relying completely on one’s knowledge of the past in order to pack the biggest emotional wallop he can.

The Godfather: Part III’s climactic performance of Cavalleria Rusticana is by far one of the best across the three films, bringing the cross-cutting style of Part I’s “Renounce Satan” montage to fittingly operatic heights. It’s the curtain call one would want the most out of this final part, a distillation of everyone’s wicked flaws to one expected, inevitable, yet horribly tragic moment of pathos.

The closing scene, itself a reflection and rumination on what’s lost and what could’ve been, is a further mirror between Vito and Michael, father and son. If Part II was the close of a circle, the end of Part III is the moment when an Ouroboros finally swallows itself whole. It’s a moment where no possible reflection or redemption seems possible. We’ve twisted ourselves into a knot that can’t be untied unless a sword cuts us down.

It’s a fantastic close to a trilogy that’s immortal by this point — and one that quashes any doubt that The Godfather: Part III was a film that at least deserved to be explored, no matter how much the film’s quality may support its detractors.

The Godfather: Part III is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and is rentable on most streaming platforms.

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