The Godfather Part III was released on the week of Christmas in 1990, about 16 years after the release of The Godfather Part II. Nearly twice that length of time has passed in the years since, in which there have been frequent critical reappraisals of the ending of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous mob saga.
The film, while a box-office hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, has long been considered at least a step below the first two films. The general critique of the film is that its plot is needlessly complex and that the director’s daughter Sofia Coppola was in over her head in the role of Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary. Also, The Godfather Part III is overshadowed not only by the first two movies but by Goodfellas, which was released just a couple of months earlier and a much more highly-regarded film about the Mafia.
On a recent rewatch, for the first time in a few years, I found Godfather III more watchable and compelling than most people who saw it back in 1990 probably remembered. I understood the plot a bit better, and I wasn’t especially bothered by Sofia’s performance, probably because it’s a fairly small role. No, it’s not Godfather I or II — or Goodfellas, for that matter — but Godfather III isn’t nearly the disaster that its reputation suggests.
The general critique of the film is that its plot is needlessly complex and that the director’s daughter Sofia Coppola was in over her head
The fatigue and confusion about the Vatican plot seem a cousin of the complaints that would follow 20 years later when Sopranos fans felt bored by every episode that didn’t feature somebody getting whacked. And the first two Godfathers and Goodfellas, after all, are among the greatest films of all time.
This season, I should state, has even seen the release of a new version of the film, titled Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, put on VOD and in theaters by the tinkering-happy Coppola, who has already released at least three different cuts of Apocalypse Now. I have not yet seen that version, although I gather that the changes are minimal, with the exception of one scene moving from the middle to the beginning and some general trimming.
About that Plot
The original version of The Godfather Part III, set in 1979, shows Michael Corleone as an aging man of many regrets. He’s gotten out of crime and made an attempt to go legitimate, selling off his casinos and criminal enterprises. He donates millions of dollars to the Catholic Church and steps up his pursuit of a massive real estate deal connected to the Vatican. He’s seeking to finally, as he promised in the first movie, make his family “completely legitimate.”
Of course, like just about every other movie ever made about a longtime criminal trying to go straight, it doesn’t quite stick, leading to the third movie’s greatest contribution to popular culture, Michael’s lament that “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
This leads to the film’s best moment, when the protagonist, at last, confesses his sins
Michael’s old mob rivals, led by elderly Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), want in on the real estate deal, while next-generation gangsters like the John Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantenga) still want him to negotiate mob disputes and curry favor in their direction. And Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) — the illegitimate son of his late brother Sonny — seems determined to live the gangster life, even if Michael’s own son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) rejects the family business to pursue a career as an opera singer.
Michael and Kay (Diane Keaton) are long divorced, with their two children having been raised, the remarried Kay, and Michael — as hinted by the “it was an abortion, Michael” moment near the end of II — is haunted by having pushed away his family.
And of course, Michael is haunted by the guilt of his many crimes, especially his ordering of the murder of his brother Fredo in the second film. This leads to the film’s best moment, when the protagonist, at last, confesses his sins:
Beyond that, just as Michael wants to go legitimate, it turns out his contacts in the Vatican are interested in behaving more like gangsters, with lucrative sidelines in theft and assassination. The film’s plot ties in with the real-life Vatican banking scandals of the late ’70s, and even implies mob involvement in the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I. It’s not a film, alas, that makes the leadership of the Catholic Church look especially virtuous, between their accepting payoffs from a notorious criminal, and their high-level cardinals and archbishops acting a lot like criminals themselves.
Much like the recent Star Wars sequels, The Godfather Part III has quite a few sequences that rhyme with those from the previous films, especially the first one. Like the first film, it starts with a long sequence with a huge family party, while it ends with another major gathering, interrupted with cross-cuts to many acts of violence. And Anthony’s status as the non-gangster in the family echoes Michael’s in the opening parts of the first film, while Michael’s being forced by circumstances to act as a mob boss does as well.
Ultimately, the film makes it clear, as the best gangster movies do, that this life has terrible costs, and Michael not only experiences the death of his daughter but ultimately dies alone in a chair.
I first saw The Godfather Part III in the theater, back in 1990, when I was just 12 years old and had for some reason become obsessed with these movies, despite being way too young to understand anything about crime or morality, not being Catholic, and being from a part of the country with next to no Italian people. But I conclude now what I did then — the film is better than most people think, even if it’s not nearly on the level of Godfather I or II.