That line has to be one of the more fondly remembered moments in The Godfather Part III – or Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, to give the full, ungainly title of this re-edited version from the 81-year-old Coppola, who like his hero evidently can’t escape the pull of the Corleone clan.
This undeniably improves on the original version from 1990, always regarded as the weak point of the trilogy. The story is less cluttered by flashbacks and easier to follow, especially in the first half hour, which assembles most of the characters at a party in Michael’s honour.
Even newcomers to the series should quickly grasp the central, tragic irony: that Michael is both a powerful leader and a prisoner, chained to his own personal guilt as well as that of his family.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this is the same film it always was, with the same strengths and weaknesses. A major strength is Pacino’s controlled performance, interesting partly for its discontinuity from the previous Godfather films: the brooding younger Michael has become a more gregarious, down-to-earth figure, however conflicted he remains beneath the surface.
As for the weaknesses? The literally operatic climax still verges on self-parody. The absence of Robert Duvall as Michael’s advisor Tom Hagen is still keenly felt. And the director’s daughter Sofia Coppola, as Michael’s daughter Mary, still can’t act her way out of a paper bag – which I feel less guilty pointing out now she’s proved herself repeatedly on the other side of the camera.
This last flaw is not just incidental: Mary is supposed to embody everything Michael holds dear, but Coppola’s delivery is so awkward and non-committal we can barely guess what kind of person she’s meant to be. Even when Pacino cuts loose emotionally at the last minute, he can’t make up for this absence at the story’s heart.
“Pure theatre”: Why the original was no bad thing
by Sandra Hall
The Godfather Part III had improved with age even before Francis Ford Coppola took to it with a new pair of scissors. Unfairly dismissed as both the turkey and the ugly duckling of the trilogy, it can now be seen as a swan.
Well, a black swan. Its detractors were right about the murkiness of its storyline but blockbuster television series have taught us to appreciate convoluted plotting and the film’s driving theme – the unholy alliance between criminality and the Vatican – has become even more pertinent. It’s only three years since Pope Francis compared the job of reforming the curia to “cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush”.
As for the 18 year-old Sofia Coppola’s work as Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary, it doesn’t warrant the savaging it received. She is awkward but Mary has been written that way. Or rather underwritten. The script doesn’t make enough of the fact that she’s a guileless teenager brought up by her mother in an atmosphere removed from the Machiavellian world in which her father operates. As a result, she seems unnecessarily clueless. And if her death scene is remembered as one of the most risible in movies, it’s because of the histrionics that surround it.
Nonetheless, those histrionics form a large part of the film’s appeal. Shot by the great cinematographer, Gordon Willis, whose nickname was The Prince of Darkness, it’s both shadowy and sumptuous. The murderous climax, choreographed in concert with a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, is such a brazen bit of risk-taking that it can be admired it for its audacity alone. It’s pure
theatre with two opposing teams of silhouetted assassins prowling the back corridors of the opera house, picking one another off as the opera’s libretto runs in parallel onstage. And at the same time at the Vatican, acts of comparable brutality are taking place.
Coppola’s recut version doesn’t change any of this. It’s about 12 minutes shorter but the most conspicuous surgery is done upfront and at the end. As well as opting for a more ambivalent conclusion he’s dumped the melancholy montage of flashbacks which opened the original to get straight down to business. The film now begins with a scene which has Michael haggling over a hugely lucrative corporate deal with a Catholic archbishop.
There’s nothing particularly radical about these alterations. Coppola has merely streamlined and clarified but the fundamentals remain the same and that’s no bad thing.
The new edit of The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is in selected cinemas and is available to stream online.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.