This new series, “For Your (Re)Consideration,” is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, in order to take a look at older pieces – books, music, movies – that either have been maligned, or have become classic to the point of ignoring. What I mean is, there are works that everyone hates because you’re supposed to hate them, but is it warranted? Then there are works that are so obvious – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or The Catcher in the Rye, that we just know are great and classic that we never actually enjoy because it’s too obvious, or we think we’re over-exposed. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of them. In other words, I’m going to review old things. I hope you’ll come with me. We’ll start with little loved The Godfather, Part III.
There might be no movie more collectively ignored, more relegated to a cinematic blind-spot, than The Godfather, Part III. Read a book about the films and barely a couple of pages will discuss the third film. Buy the DVD’s and descriptions of the films will include only a cursory mention of it. It is mentioned, if at all, as the example of how far a filmmaker can fall – from the near perfection of the first two films to… this. People who adore the first two films basically pretend this one isn’t even there.
Whenever I teach a film class, we study the first two films. Slowly, thoroughly, we make our way through them. Invariably, students ask about the third film. Is it worth watching? What happens? And invariably, I respond with the standard response of, “Don’t see it. It’s awful. It’s a desecration of the first two.” But this time, I decided to re-watch it and re-evaluate. Is it really as bad as I remember? Or have I simply jumped on the bandwagon?
*Oh, just in case… I’d think it goes without saying, but I’m going to be talking about the films and a couple key events in them so… spoiler alerts? I mean, The Godfather came out 40 years ago, so if you haven’t seen it I’d guess you’re not in a big hurry. Plus, a lot of the elements have become such a part of our cultural consciousness that you probably know them even if you think you don’t.*
First off, you need to understand, however briefly, these “heights.” The Godfather was a film no one was interested in directing, handed to a young director who thought it might be a way to make some money in order to finance his independent company. Instead, he made a masterpiece. Two years later, he released a sequel – an action begging to fail horribly – that many argue surpasses the original in its scale, its artistry and its allegorical depth. Between the two, Coppola made The Conversation, a quietly brilliant work. From there he would scale to the tipping point of genius and megalomania into very literal madness with the making of Apocalypse Now. From that insanity he never really recovered. When he returned to filmmaking he made works that were largely safe, bland, and formulaic. So in 1990, 16 years after Part II, when he released Part III, he had everything riding on it.
The rest of the world did not.
Part of the quiet, tragic beauty of the ending of Part II is that in one short, silent scene, in which Michael Corleone sits motionless, we learn everything we need to know about his future. Cinema is an inherently shallow medium – capable of communicating a tremendous breadth of ideas immediately, but never really able to move to the depths of the written word. This moment, however approaches it. The idea of a part III seems like epilogue. The reality, unfortunately, does too.
The basics of the plot is that Michael Corleone, tormented by the killing of his brother, is giving a fortune to the Catholic church in an effort to buy forgiveness. At the same time he’s trying to, at long last, get out of the “family business” by passing the empire on, in a quasi-reworking of King Lear. Okay. Fair enough.
It is not a terrible movie. In some ways this is the worst thing of all. This is not an artist, furiously trying to capture is earlier magic, swinging for the fences and either hitting, or crashing. The movie is fine. It’s just… fine. It’s like someone made a TV movie follow-up. Where the first two build slowly, refusing to hurry or pander, with subtly visual parallels and moments whose power and complexity don’t pay off until a couple of hours further in, or even in to the second film? The third one brings up almost no points that aren’t resolved immediately.
One of the only things students always want to know at the end of Part II is what happens to Anthony, Michael’s son. In the film, as a boy, he seems to be being trained to follow Michael’s descent in to isolation and cruelty. He asks to go along with his father on business and help, and Michael says. “Some day you will.” Later, Connie tells Anthony to leave the room and he doesn’t budge until Michael gives him the nod. The same nod he uses to excuse his hired killers, Al Neri or Rocco Lompone.
So in the third film he doesn’t want to be in the family business. Okay, well, that’s kind of a parallel to Michael wanting to leave the business in Part I, even though it doesn’t fit his backstory, but maybe that can make sense. But the scene in which he confronts his father basically plays like this: “Father, I want to be an opera singer.” “NO! YOU WILL BE A LAWYER AND THEN IF YOU WANT TO SING AS A HOBBY, SO BE IT… okay fine, be an opera singer.” Phew. That’s some drama there.
It appears that Joey Zasa is trying to take over the Corleone’s empire? Next scene: Pow! One dead Zasa. And virtually everything in the film plays like this. Set up, resolution. Set up, resolution. And subtlety? Nooo, thank you. Gone are the lies and deceptions. The cold stare of Frank Pentangeli’s brother that gets him to reverse his testimony against the Corleone’s for reasons we’re left to decipher. Time to try and kills someone? Why not pull up a helicopter and some machine guns like in this scene? And, in case your lost, someone even yells out the name of who seems to have done it.
And people always like to go on and on about how bad Sofia Coppola, playing Michael’s other child, Mary, is in the film. And she’s pretty bad; but it’s scapegoating to blame her. The breathy, half-whine with which she delivers every line does kind of make you crazy after a while, but it’s a minor point in the scope of things.
One character is really enjoyable to see, and that’s how Connie Corleone, the abused wife and wayward daughter, has hardened. She gives easily the most compelling performance of a woman whose spirit was broken, so she rebuilt it with concrete. She lives only to further the family’s power. When Michael tries to tell her of the things he’s done? She stops him and repeats the lies, assuring him that that’s what needs to be true. When she decides a rival must die, she consents to take a bite of a dessert she herself has poisoned, just to ensure that he will eat more of it. But Connie is the exception.
Two moments really capture the sort of sad impotence of Part III. The first is the moment in which Michael finally confesses that he had Fredo, his brother, murdered. Now, this confession scene should be stomach churning. It should be devastatingly powerful. The killing of Fredo is one of the most tragic moments in cinema – the ice-cold depths to which Michael has sunk, killing his simple-minded brother for making a mistake, and because Michael believes he must eliminate anyone who crosses him. And yet the confession scene? Hm. Fine. Yes, it appears that was quite bothersome to him, holding that secret in.
There is a scene in the final episode of the TV series The Shield in which Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey finally confesses – after years of denials – to the murder of a fellow police officer. It plays out with a seemingly interminable silence as the truth seems to bubble up from the tarry depths of Mackey’s soul. It looks like it might literally break him to speak. It’s a scene that is overwhelming. (sorry about the subtitles)
The scene of Michael’s confession should be that. At least that. Instead he says it, seems to feel better. Needs a candy bar.
The second moment is the ending. In the end of the first film, Michael has abandoned his nobility, and taken on the helm of the Corleone empire. As Kay, his wife – and the symbol of his life outside this shadowy world – is literally shut out of the room, dark men kiss his hand and call Michael Godfather. At the end of part II? The moment I already mentioned. The Corleone empire is more powerful than ever, yet we can see that Michael has destroyed everything his father really built – a family, a community. He is alone, broken and unloved. He sits with his hand to his lips – remembering a happier time – as though the only one left to kiss his hand is himself. An empire unto his own. And we know. We know what the rest of his cold, isolated life will be. He has failed. He has brought about his own destruction through action after action he thought would preserve his world.
At the end of Part III? Michael is sitting in a chair, alone, and he dies. Get it?? Because he died alone! The end! There’s nothing to understand, nothing to contemplate, no poetry. It’s right there. It just needs narration, or subtitles to really hammer the moments obviousness home.
So, is it worth watching? No, not really. But it’s not a desecration. It’s not a travesty. It’s a whimper, not a bang.
Thanks for reading. I’ll get back to funny. Promise.