An unremarkable re-edit
“The only wealth in this world is children. More than all the money and power on earth. You are my treasure.” — Michael Corleone
The Godfather Part III is, and will forever be, a fascinating film. A trilogy capper that attempted to follow up a one-two punch of two of the greatest films in American history some 15 years after the second chapter, each viewing simultaneously increases my estimation of the film and cements its inferiority to the first two. When Francis Ford Coppola announced a reworking of the third chapter, complete with a new remaster, re-edit, and retitling to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone, I felt the time was perfect for me to revisit the hallowed series and prime myself to soak in a new cut of a fascinating film with the series quite fresh in my mind. And while it’s always a good time to revisit some of the greatest films of all time, a back to back viewing of The Godfather Part III and Coda makes for a head scratching experience.
The theatrical Godfather Part III which we’ve all known and had access to for decades is itself a highly flawed film, though one we’ve had time to process and discuss. I find it to be a successful final chapter to an epic saga when assessing the narrative directions it goes. Michael Corleone, rightfully haunted by his inhuman acts to cement the power of the Corleone family (most notably the order to have his own brother Fredo killed) has set his eyes on going legitimate through a business deal with the Catholic church. Meanwhile, his ambitious nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia playing Sonny Corleone’s extramarital offspring conceived at Connie’s wedding in the opening scene of the first film) strives to become the heir to the Corleone family as Michael’s own children, Anthony (opera singer Franc D’Ambrosio) and Mary (Sofia Coppola) seek out a legitimate life. Connie (Talia Shire) has become somewhat of a headmistress to the family, more or less one of Michael’s generals and enablers, with a wicked streak of her own. And Kay (Diane Keaton) has re-married, distanced herself from Michael’s toxic corruption, and is attempting to protect her adult children from the insidious family business.
Many of the narrative choices that frame The Godfather Part III are fantastic ones. Exploring the Catholic church as an institution which Michael believes has the authority to grant him some kind of absolution for his cursed soul, and which has its own deep corruptions hidden beneath the surface, is the biggest stroke of genius. The Godfather Saga depicts institutions and institutional ceremony repeatedly, and the major movements of the Corleone family all take place around events such as weddings, baptisms, first communions, and opera house debuts. The juxtaposition of gangland violence against the backdrop of these legitimate cultural and religious rites is the stuff of Godfather legend, an intermingling of the legitimate and the monstrous. And Godfather Part III is as good at crafting these sweeping set pieces of crescendoing violence as any of the previous films.
Here the film kicks off with a massive ceremony in which Michael is being honored with an award from the church, and the finale of the entire series takes place against a sprawling backdrop of Tony Corleone’s opera house debut in their native Sicily. Michael has allowed his children to go their own way at the behest of Kay, and he beams with pride as Tony displays his operatic talent. Meanwhile Connie has her own plots against a rival Don, now-Godfather Vincent is orchestrating a multi-pronged hit on their various rivals, and an assassin comes for Michael. In the end, it is Mary, the apple of Michael’s eye, who is caught in the crossfire and killed on the steps of the opera house even as Vincent and Connie successfully execute all the competition. Michael’s quest for absolution is forever ended with Mary’s death. Any hope he had of redeeming his relationships with his ex-wife and children is shattered. Gone is the narrow path he pursued to save his soul.
This is fantastic stuff narratively. And if that was all that mattered, The Godfather Part III might well be considered an uncontested triumph. It’s just that the execution absolutely never rivals those first two films. Sofia Coppola’s performance is often cited as ruinous to the film. And while she does come across flat and out of place at times, there are other moments when one can absolutely see how Vincent would fall tragically in love with her in a forbidden and doomed romance and how Michael’s entire soul could rest on the fate of this one special girl. So no, the movie’s problem’s don’t live or die on the shoulders of Sofia Coppola. It’s writer/director Francis himself who seems to have slipped some by the time this film was made. There’s lots of sloppy exposition to convey some subplots, and they end up feeling almost cartoonish. Talia Shire’s Connie has much more to do in this third installment but her actions occasionally feel like parody. The intricate power plays between the church, the church’s corrupt financiers, and the warring gangland factions are muddled and hard to follow. All Godfather films have complex narratives with many different families to follow. Game of Thrones before there was Game of Thrones. But Part III just does a bad job of helping the viewer keep track of it all. Overuse of exposition in some areas crashes into inexplicable double crosses in others.
It’s a bit of a mess. But it’s an occasionally gorgeous, thematically dead-on, worthwhile crime film that will forever carry a mark simply for not being one of the greatest films ever made in this country or any other.
What an opportunity! As Part III came decades after the last film, so Coda comes decades after the release of Part III. Coppola was given the opportunity by the studio to revisit this mixed bag of a film and attempt to revitalize it. Not just a remastering, but a re-edit, and even a re-titling. This prospect fascinated me and I leapt at the opportunity to revisit the full series and provide a somewhat informed perspective on the differences between the two cuts. And while my analysis is far from authoritative, I’d say this entire exercise is much ado about little.
Coppola opens the film quite differently, with the thesis statement quoted above kicking things off. “The only wealth in this world is children”. While this thesis statement might be somewhat obvious, I found this quote’s placement at least partially validating for me as it confirmed my own read of the film as being all about Michael’s true “death” being the loss of his daughter. The final shot of Michael physically dying, elderly and alone, was always confirmation enough of this read, but the opening quote provides a nice juxtaposition. Perhaps the best part of Coda is that it places the intricate and corrupt business dealings Michael has with the church much earlier in the film. Much of my confusion around the deal and all the various players in the Immobiliari business dealings are much easier to follow and having them earlier in the film does provide a little bit more… urgency?… to the criminal dealings in the film. But if I’m being totally honest, these changes to the first act of the film were the biggest and most impactful that I observed in the re-edit. The film is several minutes shorter than the theatrical cut, and I noticed one substantial scene featuring Connie explicitly giving Vincent some orders to carry out a hit while Michael was unconscious was excised. (A scene I actually kind of liked as it fleshes out Connie’s dark arc). Most significantly, in the finale Coppola does use some editing to improve the assassination attempt which ultimately kills Mary. Sofia’s performance here in the original film is particularly egregious thanks as much to the editing as to her actual delivery. So while Mary’s death is markedly improved in the final moments of Coda, mere moments later Coppola alters the very final shots of the film quite unsuccessfully in my opinion. Michael’s death, the very final moments of the trilogy, always perfectly mirrored his father Don Vito’s death. Where Vito collapsed and died of natural causes while playing with young Anthony, bucking the trend of his compatriots who were violently gunned down in the streets, Michael also collapses and dies of old age. Yet when Michael dies, he is alone. The implication is that when Mary died, Michael died, but fate allowed him to live to an old age, estranged from his family and haunted by his sins. It’s fitting. It’s tragic. Michael’s lifeless collapse to the ground represents a footnote, the titular coda, if you will. Where there was some dignity and promise in Vito’s death, there is only isolation in Michael’s death. And yet, for some damn reason, Coppola recuts Michael’s death to obscure the collapse of his body to the ground and ends the entire trilogy with a newly added quote: “When the Sicilians wish you ‘Cent’anni’… it means ‘for long life’… and a Sicilian never forgets.” I get that this added quote is supposed to further condemn Michael for killing Fredo and allowing his daughter to be gunned down, trapping him in a decaying body until old age takes him. But the original finale was simply miles better in my estimation. One of the few perfect elements of a highly flawed film. This somewhat small change, probably only ten seconds of actual screen time, is a big deal, however. Hell, it’s the scene depicting the new title of the cut. And it diminishes the death of Michael Corleone narratively. So, in the end, despite some improvements, I’ll almost certainly take the theatrical cut over Coda in all future rewatches.
To be clear, had The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone debuted as a special feature on a newly remastered release of the entire trilogy in 4K, that would be another story. This would be a KILLER bonus feature to make yet another physical and digital media re-release of these historic films a must-own. As a solo release, however, Coda is a bust. The movie does look great in HD, but featuring only a 2 minute introduction from Coppola and a revisional edit that does little to alter the overall film, this simply isn’t something for fans to rush out and purchase. There are elements that Coda “fixes”, but just as many that it muddles. Some may consider this to be a new definitive edit, but I doubt I’ll even revisit it again. In a way, I’m genuinely glad it exists, but it does so as a curio more than a game-changing update to a flawed classic.
And I’m Out.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone debuts on Blu-ray and Digital 12/8/2020 from Paramount Home Entertainment.