Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Blu-ray Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Blu-ray Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal

It is inarguable that The Godfather III (1990) is inferior to the first two films in the series. What followup wouldn't be? But it is not the complete failure that many of its hyperbolic critics labelled it. In wrapping up my series of posts giving my impressions on each film, let's go over some of its good points and bad. The story arrived at is surprising. Paramount reportedly had been working on a sequel for years without the involvement of director Francis Ford Coppola and only limited involvement from Mario Puzo. Most of the screenplays took a predictable path, killing Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) off early in the script, and passing the baton to a new generation, personified in his son, Anthony. But Paramount approached Coppola at a moment when he was in need of money, convincing him to return with Puzo and cowrite a new installment. For Coppola, Michael has always been the central character, and making no bones about his intentions, the production worked for a long time under the title The Death of Michael Corleone. But Paramount which had once been skittish of calling the second film, Part II (remember, this was before sequels were in vogue), demanded this movie be called Part III. It would be interesting to see if this film would have gotten a different response had the first title been used. This is obviously a transitional film in the story, meant to address a new generation of mobster taking over from the old, that unlike the last two, has little to do with Vito, whose story had been wrapped up at the end of the second film. This would be the end of Michael's story, and perhaps the launch of a new generation represented by an unlikely hero, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), Santino Corleone's illegitimate son. Sticking with the roman-a-clef motif that worked so well for him last time, Coppola fashioned a plot revolving around the scandal-ridden Vatican of the late seventies/early eighties, entangled in financial malfeasance, and contending with the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I who was only in office for a scant 33 days before dying under mysterious circumstances. Since Michael Corleone has already achieved legitimacy for his family, he sees this as an opportunity for personal redemption, seeking to become a major shareholder in International Immobiliare, one of the Vatican's holding companies. The introduction of Vincent and his ambitious rival Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) is a reminder that Michael cannot escape the life he came from. Soon he must confront his enemies again, if only to overcome their influence on him. Vincent seems like a natural candidate to succeed him on the criminal side of things. See how he deals with the Zasa problem in this clip: Though at first seeming to operate only on the limited level of his father Sonny, with his impulsive violent outbursts and womanizing, Vincent soon reveals himself to be more than that. He is the amalgamation of the best qualities of all of Vito's sons, just as Vito was the perfect package. A combination of Sonny's ferocity, Fredo's kindness, and Michael's deviousness, it is clear that Vincent has the strength necessary to take over from his ailing uncle. Andy Garcia was a smart choice, at the time. A rising star, he smartly chose not to emulate James Caan's physical tics, since Sonny died before Vincent had a chance to meet him. Instead his physical performance is more of an impression of Robert De Niro's, using gestures and walking with De Niro's gait. This reinforces his kinship to the original Godfather. Here is a scene that illustrates the best qualities he inherited from Vito and his sons: One of the major disappointments of the film has to be the loss of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen. Rumor has it that while Diane Keaton was offered equal pay to Al Pacino to reprise her role of Kay, Duvall's offer was pretty insulting. To say his absence is felt is an understatement. The character of Hagen brought an earthy and professional realism to the Corleone saga, particularly in scenes with the older generation capos such as Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) in the respective climaxes for each film, where Duvall brought a wistfulness to his confrontation of each traitor, lamenting the end of their generation's era as underbosses for the Family. Hagen's absence is given little acknowledgement in the dialogue, but it helps spotlight two other cast members. The casting of George Hamilton as the new family consigliere, B.J. Harrison, is an inspired one. His presence brings an odd sort of weight to the throwaway character, as does his memorable look, a slick shock of white hair on his tanned physique, speaking volumes of the character as well as the direction Michael has taken his family toward. And Hamilton manages to execute the few lines he has pretty flawlessly. Talia Shire's performance as Connie really comes into its own in this film. Her character is so willing to accept the Family business, that she could almost be given the honorary title of "Godmother," as a token of respect towards the lethality she brings to the table. Here's an exchange from the film as Michael talks to her and Vincent:
Michael: You had a gun. They only had a knife. You could have talked them into surrendering. Turned them over to the police. Vincent: Hey, Uncle Mike, Zasa sent these guys I was just sending him a message that's all. Michael: Now he has to send you a message back. Vincent: Joey Zasa's gonna send me a message? Joey Zasa's gonna send me a message? Connie: Michael, he did the right thing. He got Zasa's name. Michael: What's Joey Zasa got to do this this? Joey Zasa's a patso. Joey Zasa. Alright, you are what you are. It's in your nature. From now on you stick close to me. You don't go anywhere, you don't do anything, you don't talk to anyone without checking with me first, understand? Vincent: Yeah. Michael: I've got problems with the commission, young man! Vincent: Yeah, I know. Michael: You don't make them any easier. Vincent: I know. Michael: Alright, go on. Get out of here. Connie: Michael. Michael: Yes. Connie: Now they'll fear you. Michael: Maybe they should fear you.
Connie now resembles a black widow, always dressed darkly, while her thin frame belies the power she now wields as one of brother Michael's closest advisors. The evolution of Connie's character from hapless victim to this Lady Macbeth-like figure goes a long way towards rehabilitating the Godfather series' outlook towards its stereotypical female characters. A monumental liability that the film never really is able to overcome is the casting of director Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, Sofia, as Michael's daughter, Mary. Reportedly, at various times, everyone from Julia Roberts to Madonna to Winona Ryder had to drop out of the production after being cast as Mary. Ryder, dropped out so close to the start of shooting that Coppola felt no choice but to cast his own daughter (now a major director in her own right). While that may stretch credibility somewhat, it's easy to see why he might have felt compelled to commit such a rash act. Consciously or not, Coppola has always had a kinship with Michael, both sons of Italian immigrants navigating through their respective corporate surroundings, struggling to achieve power, control, and freedom to pursue the success that escaped their fathers. For Coppola it is artistic success, and for Michael it is legitimacy for his criminal family. Though Michael achieves it before the movie's start, he continues to try to pull the puppet strings as he later accuses an enemy, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) of doing. In this film, unlike the others, Michael is confronted with his deterioration and mortality, finally feeling remorse for his actions: Here is the crux of the story. Michael, a vampiric shadow of the man he once was, constantly hiding his evil behind his dark tinted glasses, laments that he was never loved as his father or his patron, Don Tomassino, were. And Fate keeps destroying the ones he loves in order to exact a price for Michael's sins. After Tomassino is brutally assassinated, he sits at his coffin, and offers this soliloquy:
Goodbye my old friend. You could have lived a little longer, I could be closer to my dream. You were so loved, Don Tommasino. Why was I so feared, and you so loved? What was it? I was no less honorable. I wanted to do good. What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.
Sadly, Sofia Coppola is not cut out to hold the screen with an acting heavyweight like Pacino. Further damaging is a subplot involving a forbidden romance with her cousin Vincent. One never believes that a street tough like Vincent would find the valley girlish Mary so appealing, and definitely not enough to jeopardize his standing with Michael. But her character is integral to the film's denouement. The finale at Anthony's operatic debut is the setpiece that most evokes the grandness of the previous films. It also seems to blatantly frame the film as a grand opera. The melodrama certainly seems to be echoed in the opera being performed, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Coppola seems to be commenting on how these characters have moved away from the realism he had endowed them with in the seventies. Twenty years after Part II, Coppola is acknowledging not only how the Corleones have become American myths, as film critic Glenn Kenny writes on his blog, but caricatures in much the same way the cumulative experiences of Coppola and Pacino in particular have led them to become caricatures of their former selves. From a kinder perspective, the Corleones are now just as archetypal as the characters one usually finds in opera, with emotional dynamics writ just as large, their villains just as flamboyant, their "heroine", Mary, just as innocent, and their "heroes", Michael and Vincent, just as boorish. The Vatican roman-a-clef is also reminiscent of opera's similar use of real events as a backdrop. This all leads to an ending that is more than fitting for Michael, as his sins are visited on an innocent: The scream Pacino lets out when Mary dies is both cathartic and heartbreaking, the most expressive act of emotion we've ever seen from a previously pragmatic and cold individual. The film ends the trilogy powerfully, illustrating the sad retribution that Fate had in store for Michael, to live to see the death of his innocent daughter as a result of the life he lead. For more on the Godfather films, see: Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Part II Stills courtesy of Paramount Pictures.


Joel Bocko said...

Excellent overview. My opinion of III used to be higher - I saw it as deeply flawed yet still at the same level as I & II. Now I would say I think its flaws are a little more damning - and I'm not entirely convinced that the old Michael could become the one we see here, though we accept it since Pacino is such a good actor. Still, it contains some power, does not disgrace the series, and its conclusion is one of the great knockout punches in cinema...more than worthy of its illustrious predecessors. You can almost see Vito's stoic, spectral face hovering over the Sicilian opera house as the seeds he sowed are reaped and harvested to the tune of Michael's silent scream (the decision to cut out the sound, which I believe was Walter Murch's, is what turns this moment - already powerful - into one of the transcendent portraits of grief and suffering in film history).

I think one of the movie's redeeming grace - aside from the finale - is that when it's underwhelming, that trait somehow seems fitting, the flaws a part of the autumnal mood. The gangsters seem flashier and less substantial than in previous outings (Zasa vs. Barzini? C'mon...), but that works because the grandeur of the Mafia has slipped away over time. Michael inspires less awe, but he's in decline and, besides, his weakness comes off as appropriately Lear-like. Sofia is truly poor in this part, but somehow her weakness as an actress makes the character - and the character's fate - all the more poignant; besides, there must have been a personal element in Coppola's staging of his daughter's death scene, which may partially explain the power of that moment (if I'm not mistaken, Coppola had only recently lost his own son).

I remember one critic saying the film should have focused on America, instead of diverting its attention to Sicily, but I disagree. While America and the immigrant experience are vitally important backdrops to The Godfather, ultimately it is a story of family and a return to the family's roots was wise. In the first half, we see how decadent and decayed and dingy the organized crime scene has become in America, and if that had been all III had to offer than, pardon the cliche, it's an offer we could have gladly refused.

"Most of the screenplays took a predictable path, killing Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) off early in the script, and passing the baton to a new generation, personified in his son, Anthony."

What a terrible, worthless movie this would have been! Thank God Coppola - while making many other more minor missteps - did not make this fundamental one. The Godfather is Michael's story; to kill him off and focus on his son, a nonentity till now would have cheapened the whole saga in a way III couldn't even have dreamed of!

Anonymous said...

I don't see why everyone is so down on Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone. I thought she was great and I fell in love with her character throughout the movie and her death at the end brought me to tears.