Friday, December 19, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: The Godfather Part III

Godfather III on DVD at
To coincide with the most recent release of the GODFATHER trilogy on DVD, all three films (the first two with restored prints) have been making the theatrical rounds. I missed the first film for nothing more or less than criminal personal negligence, but I caught II and III. I’m going to have to review the first two someday, but for now I’ll just take a look at the least-loved entry. THE GODFATHER PART III, is, to be sure, the least good of the three films, but when you consider that the first two are among the finest American films ever made, that’s not saying too much. The fact that it’s not up to this lofty standard means it gets a lot of flak, but in truth it holds up pretty well as an appropriately operatic finale to the story of Michael Corleone and the legacy he’s spent a lifetime trying to get away from. (Spoilers for the first two are below the cut, but seriously, you haven’t seen these films?)

The film takes place in 1979, after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, natch) has moved back to New York and is continuing to try and become a respectable citizen. The first major sequence is a reception after Michael has been honored by no less than the Roman Catholic Church for his charity and humanitarian work, but in attendance is local enforcer Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who’s been having run-ins with Michael’s bastard nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), who’s inherited his father Sonny’s bad temper and masculine charms. All of this mobster business threatens to interfere with Michael’s attempt to finally make the Corleones legitimate; by paying off some of a deficit incurred by the Vatican Bank’s less-than-scrupulous accountant (Donal Donnelly), Michael will get their vote on a takeover of Immobiliare, the largest real estate company in the world, effectively transferring all his family’s holdings to this one clean business. When Michael calls the owners of his casinos to a meeting to formally dissolve their partnership, a brutal massacre takes place and he is forced to once again play the Mafia game to protect himself and his family. There’s further trouble brewing within the household, though, as Vincent has fallen in love with Michael’s own daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola.)

The plot dealing with Immobiliare and the Vatican is a rather intricate one, such that, having seen the film three times now, I’m still not entirely sure I get all of it. But it’s as fascinating as the elaborate ventures in the earlier films, showing corruption at the most rarefied heights of power and nicely playing into a brief but suspect chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. The idea is that Michael is essentially trying to wash his money clean, and atone for his many, many sins in the process. The film is the story of his attempt at redemption, and as one might imagine it does not go smoothly.

The weak link that’s been constantly attacked in regards to this film is Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to cast his own daughter Sofia as Mary. In his and her defense, the role was supposed to go to Winona Ryder, who bowed out for some reason at the last minute, and Sofia was the only person available on short notice. However, the poor girl just can’t act. She comes off as bored and wooden, and not nearly as sympathetic as the character is meant to be. This is a significant flaw, make no mistake. But it’s not quite the killer you’d expect, as the romance between Mary and Vincent (who does have a competent actor bringing him to life) doesn’t take up that much screen time. Coppola was also at a slight disadvantage in catching Al Pacino sometime after he decided that subtlety was a mug’s game; the chilling detachment of PART II’s Michael Corleone is replaced by a more bellicose personality, and the character this time is prone to diabetic fits which have the actor lurching about like the Frankenstein monster. That said, I don’t dislike his performance; if he goes over the top now and again, well, this is a bit of an opera. Literally, as Michael’s son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has grown up to become a singer about to make his operatic debut in a Sicilian production of CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, the performance of which forms the film’s final act.

Once again we’re treated to some amazing locations and warm visuals, though obviously the period detail has been downplayed simply because there’s less of it. A rich bronze look defines much of the picture, taking place as it does in Michael’s autumn years. The picture has a slow pace, but it’s the slowness of old age, and there’s something oddly satisfying in the way the protagonist takes stock of his life and attempts to put things behind them, even when it doesn’t work. He confesses his sins, most particularly his ordering Fredo’s death, to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), soon to be Pope John Paul I. He reflects on, and tells his children about his late wife Apollonia. Just as prominently he attempts to affect some kind of reconciliation with Kay (Diane Keaton), who has moved on with her life but never fully stopped loving him or being scared of him. Pacino and Keaton are at their best together, in a long interlude where they try to assess just where they are in regards to each other. Talia Shire returns as Connie, who in her later years has become a strangely dark figure who understands the family business better than ever. Veteran character actor Eli Wallach’s turn as the too-pleasant Don Altobello is especially memorable, and though it’s nearly unforgivable that the filmmakers failed to hire back Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, and as odd a choice as it was to have the new lawyer be played by George Hamilton, he fits in better than you’d think.

Perhaps even moreso than the other films, THE GODFATHER PART III is a tragedy, and a good deal of my affection for it springs from how gloriously it all goes wrong in the end. There’s something strangely fitting about it, and though the film doesn’t quite get to the root of Michael’s moral failings, to the why of what he does, it’s a strong reminder of just how hard redemption can actually be. It’s difficult to not just recognize sin but turn away from it, and though Michael is always haunted by what he does he can never quite give it up. This is a worthy finale, and what mistakes it makes are not nearly as significant as what it gets right.

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Grade: B+

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