The Godfather Part III: From the Stage to the Streets
The Godfather Part III may be somewhat disappointing because it doesn’t reconcile the new Michael Corleone with the somnambular Michael from Part II, Coppola more invested in Megalopolis than in Mario Puzo. But a recurrent Coppola theme is time’s metamorphoses, and Michael cannot be the same person he was 20 years before. He is more affable, humorous, and public. That’s his flaw, or a token of his flawed character, tying in with Coppola's interest in theater and performance. Hung up on respectability and washing away his sins from public thought, the mega-rich Rockefeller-like Michael Corleone has donated money to make hospital wings while giving to charities dedicated to "the resurrection of Sicily." But the intimate cracks of his soul, behind the mask, cannot repent. He is a stuffed shirt, hunched over, his words “locked in” even with his family in closed quarters (the much-older Pacino’s growly voice, so different from what it was in 1974, emphasizes an abraded stiffness and scar-tissue to his rhetoric). Sickness and mortality compels the real Michael, despairing and thirsting for redemption, to at last emerge at the conclusion.
On the filmmaker’s mind was Shakespeare’s Lear, and more than that, the Lear adaptation of his idol, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, released just five years before. Influenced by Noh Theater, Kurosawa’s Lord Hidetora (Tatsuyo Nakadei) has a mask-like visage, and Coppola has taken this lead with Michael’s face, “ravaged” (as Coppola puts it) by time, disease, and guilt. Kurosawa had said that what frustrated him about Lear was Shakespeare’s ellipses. In Ran, he makes Hidetora a brutal warlord, years removed from his wartime cruelty, though the past is not finished with him. Similarly, when we see Michael Corleone in Godfather III, he is removed from the Dorian Gray-styled reptile of Part II. Coppola's film is also about masks: the speechmaker Michael, the tacky Meucci Spokesman Joey Zasa, and Don Altobello, ostensibly an infirm and senile octogenarian, but who has razor sharp acumen and is determined to outlive the young. He has a flair for the theatrical, and Eli Wallach makes Altobello irresistibly amusing when faking his geriatric role ("I know nothing about those 'new people.' I must accept my age and grow my olives and tomatoes!"), or then perfectly mouthing the words to an opera. A reader of Megalopolis can see similarities between him and Catiline's uncle, the billionaire banker Gene Hamilton, who fakes a stroke, discovers his trophy wife is having an affair with a scheming protégé, and on the "stage" of his deathbed lifts the sheets, unveiling a bow and arrow, and kills his betrayers. It could have been a classic Coppola moment, more especially when we see that the three characters had just returned from a costume party: Hamilton as Robin Hood, the wife as Cleopatra, the protege as Mark Antony.
Theatricality as dianoia is paramount in this Godfather story set in a post-Godfather era. The Mafia’s culture was itself probably more affected by Coppola and Puzo’s films than vice versa. Joining foes from the good old days (Barzini, Hyman Roth, Pentangeli, Altobello) is a featured representative of the “new” Mafia, Joey Zasa, a “bela figura” dapper don featured on magazine covers (“The Best Dressed Gangster”), in part based on men like John Gotti, Joseph Colombo, Joe Gallo, and arguably Donald Trump. Zasa, like Colombo (who openly protested production of the original Godfather), claims to represent the culture of Italian Americans, handing the “Meucci Award” to Michael Corleone (“Meucci is the Italian American who invented the telephone; he did it one year before Alexander Graham Bell”), and giving cars away for gifts at ethnic parades.
He’s not as deep of a character because the culture itself is hollow. The Meucci Foundation is a front. He’s a man always out in the open, “mingling with people,” and being photographed, loudly declaring the greatness of Italians and denying the existence of a Mafia (even his praise of Meucci is tempered when he admits that “we have Don Ameche, who played the guy who invented the telephone.”) Along with Michael’s mask-like countenance, Joey Zasa tips us off how this new Godfather universe is one based on an abundance of paper fronts, where art and life are reflected, both as pastiche and gravely serious moments. Only when we reach the Old Country are the duplicities and dramas more intriguing because, as Michael notes to Kay while “performing” his own suicide. "Give me the order!" he jokes to her, holding a knife to his neck. "Is that supposed to make me not dread you?" she asks. "It's Sicily, it's opera," he says, putting the knife down. At a crucial moment, Vincent will ask of Michael, "Give me the order," meaning to take charge of the family (and instigating a new series of highly theatrical Godfather slayings). The "order," a vestige of Hyman Roth's anecdote about Moe Green in Part II, is an important leitmotif in this third film, beginning with St. Sebastian and concluding with Vincent's request (with a slew of murders in-between), implying the equivalence of a social title, organizational role (even "vocation"), and an application of agency. Michael giving Vincent "the order" then makes him no less responsible for sustaining a culture of murder, even while wearing a mask of respectability. The "order" is marked by somber ritual, its dire consequences implying the far-reaching power of theatre, and an inability to be free of it (in context of Michael's tragedy, the inability to lead a life of authenticity).
Vincent is Zasa’s enemy, and similarly a new kind of post-opera rock-and-roll styled gangster, wearing leather at a formal party, whose “kind of town” is Atlantic City (a place that’s derided by Catiline in Megalopolis), and whose approach to history mirrors Zasa’s one-dimensional interpretation. He gives a Cliffs Notes history lesson to Mary (Sofia Coppola), standing outside the original Genco Olive Oil Company: their grandfather began as a delivery carrier, and three years later he owned the company. “Only in America,” Mary says as Elvis Costello’s “Miracle Man” plays. It’s a little too simplistic for our comfort, but it’s just fine for a spoiled third generation Corleone. Fiction refashions murderers into miracle men.
Though Vincent Mancini is an attractive character, his lack of perspective doesn’t permit him the tragic dimensions afforded to his uncle Michael. He's very much a creature of his times (that is, a 1990 heartthrob action star, and played magnificently by Andy Garcia) who has no qualms about upsetting the manners of Michael’s party and bites Zasa’s ear when the dapper don calls him a bastard. More telling is the festa during which Vincent pursues and kills Zasa (riding off on a horse, a playful and flagrant spin on Hollywood mythology). The sequence recalls Vito murdering Fanucci in Part II. But the sacrosanct ritual is muddied by Vincent’s private, profane grudge. A Corleone assassin wears holy garb, pointing a shot-gun and killing Zasa’s bodyguard; an icon of the Virgin and Christ falls to the ground, the baby Jesus decapitated; people run fearfully through the streets, a woman draping her coat protectively over a child. The exquisite “rustic chivalry” which was so theatrical and finessed in the first two films, performed with the concentration of ritual, is now, Coppola is showing us, a shameless spectacle, with cheap sex (Vincent’s one-night stand with journalist Grace Hamilton, played by Bridget Fonda, daughter of one of the era’s rebels and icons) thrown in for cheap measure. Joey Zasa himself is gunned down in front of the theatre Fanucci passed 60 years before (he thrives in fiction and so the door to the theatre is locked; he's essentially already on stage and cannot escape). Rustic chivalry has moved off the stage and into the streets, or rather the line between reality and representation has become interchangeable. We'll see much of the film's first half replayed in Cavalleria Rusticana later on, a sweeping gesture anticipated by a Sicilian puppet show, where a the puppets' deathly swordplay (a father murdering his daughter, which in effect happens between Michael and Mary) is matched by the puppeteer thrusting forth his own blade at the audience.
The Godfather Part III, or as Coppola wanted to title it, The Death of Michael Corleone, is then a very ironic film. It’s quite possible that in making the film personal, he was criticizing the industry that fell by the wayside with him, in 1979, the year when the film is set. Just as Coppola is surely making light of how Michael Corleone’s last adventure is set on the eve of Reagan’s Greed is Good era, where "Malaise" was exchanged for No Apologies, he was thinking about Hollywood and where the Corleones’ legacy – along with his – had been conceived and where it had disappeared. The mavericks like Coppola, Arthur Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and De Palma found themselves in a tough spot when movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, and Superman became studio-mandated. The characters in the post-Godfather age indulge in pastiche, quoting the first two films ("Now they'll fear you"; "It's not personal, it's only business") like true-life mafiosi did in the late seventies. Scenes like Zasa's outburst at the Commission ("You will not give? I'll take!"), Connie's confidence in Vincent ("You're the only one left with my father's strength. If anything happens to Michael, I want you to strike back." Vincent responds, "I'll have everything ready," followed by Garcia kissing her hand with wondrous melodramatic gusto), and nearly every scene with Eli Wallach's Altobello, cast the impression of singers more than the naturalistic Lee Strasberg-school movie acting pervading the first two Godfathers. Again, we're far away from New York City and back in Sicily, and as Michael says, "It's opera." His prayer over Don Tommasino's corpse, which is something of a soliloquy (he's a character functionally closer to Claudius than Lear, and this scene and his earlier confession to Cardinal Lamberto stress the agon of words weighed against thoughts, or redemption against materials), hint at a fourth wall cracking, God undifferentiated from the audience. His outburst on the opera steps almost seems to disrupt the grief of his peers (Kay, Connie, Vincent), as they step out of their parts to gaze in wonderment, the wall broken.
In his rave review of Godfather III, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleibermann writes that the first two films represented the greatest fusion of art and commerce in Hollywood. “When Coppola signed on to direct Godfather III, he wasn't simply agreeing to carry on the saga of the Corleones, the Italian-American family who made organized crime seem at once horrifying and weirdly romantic. He was agreeing to revive the kind of richly detailed classical storytelling that has all but disappeared from the American cinema...The miracle is that he pulls it off. The Godfather Part III isn't the overpoweringly great movie the first Godfather was (let's be reasonable — how could it have been?), and it lacks the bone-chilling gradations of darkness that made The Godfather Part II a singular American tragedy. This one is slower, talkier, and more prosaic: two hours of exposition and 40 minutes of payoff. What's more, its narrative seams sometimes show. Yet by the end, the movie has attained a deep-grained emotional grandeur that can hold its own with that of the other two films.” Gleibermann articulates what we should take home with Coppola’s final chapter, in addition to why we shouldn’t be stuck comparing it to other nostalgic long-in-waiting franchise installments like The Force Awakens. The finished picture has sincere questions to ask about our culture, our families, and even our relationship to cinema in the years between 1972 and 1990.
The Godfather Part III is a cathedral drawn up by a master architect, whose blueprints point to something that would be a crowning achievement. Hampered by obstacles and expectations, the final building looks unfinished, rushed, even abandoned in places, while other realms of the cathedral are magnificent, particularly (and to its enduring advantage) the last half-hour. The apparent deficiencies stand out: Robert Duvall’s absence as the family brother and intermediary between Michael and secondary characters, adding dimension to all the players; Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone, whose egregious first impression as a love object for the young godfather to come, Vincent, derails the story; and while Godfather III even seems to critique the present age’s salivation for throwbacks, there is a narrative reliance on the old films’ structures, and the Godfather tropes are too familiar when GoodFellas and Miller’s Crossing just happened a few months before. In making theatricality a primary idea in The Godfather Part III, Coppola was acknowledging, in a way that the current slate of Star Wars movies cannot, that the modality had changed from the Mythological and Romantic to something Ironic, and the Mario Puzo recipe (like the George Lucas recipe currently) was no longer tenable.
Yet assessing the film through the integrity of its given framework, none of these aspects are too bothersome. The key flaws come down to a few formal decisions, such as cutting back to images from the earlier films, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience’s memory, and likewise using the late Nino Rota’s music themes more often than needed—again, a misjudgment coming down to a lack of faith in the audience (as Francis Ford Coppola’s flexing power had weakened in 1990, we can’t know if this was his fault or studio meddling). Structurally, Coppola and Puzo’s first instincts would have suited the story better, opening with a close-up of Archbishop Gilday and slowly pulling back, the priest quoting Dante and striking a deal with Michael, where the godfather will have control of a multi-billion dollar European real estate organization, Immobilaire, in exchange for bailing the Archbishop out of debt (a handsome sum of $600 million to help pay off the total $769 million deficit; and you thought your student loan debt was bad). Instead, Coppola and editor Walter Murch made this an early scene in the second act, in lieu of a more emotionally compelling beginning, as we hear Michael’s letter to his children, spoken alongside the ruins of the Tahoe Estate.
The Gilday scene not only adds a layer of suspicion to the early Catholic ritual honoring Michael, but serves as a startling mirror to Bonasera’s request from Part I. It highlights how obscenely rich, legitimate, and “respectable” Michael has become, in addition to how global, and how desperate, he is. “Seems like the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” Gilday says to Michael. And even though Michael warns, “Don’t over-estimate the power of forgiveness,” when Gilday reminds him that being Immobilaire’s commandeer will “wash away” Michael’s history – in addition to the history of his whole family – it’s clear that, so much unlike Don Corleone to Bonasera, the Archbishop may be the one pulling the strings here. Above all else, Michael wants to be absolved. But there’s no absolution unless he steps out of the theatre and finally removes his mask.
Originally written summer 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
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