There’s a Serbian proverb that an idled priest would baptize goats; Francis Ford Coppola, whose formidable artistry has unfortunately not been channelled toward making a new movie for quite a while, is instead turning back to tinker with his earlier work. He did so last year with “Apocalypse Now” and has now done so again, to greater effect, with “The Godfather: Part III.” It’s back, in his new cut (available digitally and on Blu-ray) under the heavy-duty new title “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.” The re-edited version is a puckish paradox: it is only slightly different from the original—yet, now, this movie, which was widely derided at the time of its release, in 1990, is being acclaimed by a (mainly) new generation of critics, even if not quite as the masterwork that some of us knew it to be from the start.
As a reminder, “The Godfather: Part II” ended with Michael (Al Pacino) supreme, guilt-ridden, and alone atop the Corleone empire of crime, which he resolves to leave and go straight. In “Part III,” Michael, having divested himself of his criminal enterprises, makes a six-hundred-million-dollar “contribution” to cover up the Vatican Bank’s losses in exchange for a promise to head the Vatican’s vastly lucrative international real-estate business. His son, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), defies him to become an opera singer; his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), who runs his entirely legitimate family foundation, falls in love with the hotheaded gangster Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), her first cousin. (He’s the illegitimate son of Michael’s late brother Sonny.) Vincent’s conflict with a local Mafia capo, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), leads to a Mob war that threatens the Corleones, forcing Michael to retake bloody control of the crime family. Meanwhile, Michael’s promised Vatican enterprise is threatened by the Vatican’s internal political chicanery—which turns out to be equally dominated by the Mafia—and the two webs of criminal conflict get tangled up in a colossal and horrific maelstrom of violence.
In the new version, the story is identical; so, for that matter, are its emphases. The main changes to the film are seen at the beginning, where Coppola has eliminated the sumptuous papal knighting of Michael and replaced it with an in-chambers discussion between Michael and Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), which sets the quid pro quo of his “contribution.” In the middle of the film, Coppola has eliminated a brief scene between Michael and the aged Don Altobello (Eli Wallach). The one emotionally and dramatically significant re-edit is to the movie’s very ending—we’ll get to that. Yet over all, these edits are inconsequential both for the plot or the affect of “The Godfather: Part III,” and it’s hard to imagine why a viewer who disliked the film in its original version would be moved to enthusiasm by the new one, or why anyone who admired the original would be disappointed by the recut. The real story of the reissue and restoration of “Part III” is, rather, why the film was received so poorly in 1990 and why, now, with negligible adjustments, its time has come.
There’s a carefully parsed opulence to Coppola’s direction of “Part III”; the film’s tautly controlled turbulence guides the eye to salient details, its clarified lines of dramatic tension calmly burst into images of an explosive yet nearly static intensity. I’m haunted by several key moments in the film (both versions): Michael looming over Joey Zasa in their first backroom confrontation; the quietly fiery intimacy between Mary and Vincent in a restaurant-kitchen scene; the deadly exchange of glances between Mary and Michael after Vincent pushes her away on his orders; the gory ingenuity of an attempted bedroom hit on Vincent; the audacious staging of another gory scene, of a big Mob hit in a ballroom; and, above all, the kitchen scene in which Michael keeps his cool about the killings but delivers, with heat, the single greatest line in the whole “Godfather” cycle, an enduring bit of existential poetry: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Coppola had made other films in between “Part II” and “Part III” that are far ahead of where he’d been at the time of the early-seventies diptych—in particular, “One from the Heart,” “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” and “Rumble Fish.” They weren’t commercially successful (and he had sunk his own money into “One from the Heart,” which was both thrillingly original and a box-office disaster). In his subsequent career to date, Coppola has had only one other flare of such audacious and original directorial accomplishment, the absurd and glorious image-frenzy of the film he made after “Part III,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” from 1992, which may also have been the last best flourish of practical, optical, scenographic effects, just ahead of the C.G.I. revolution. By contrast,“The Godfather: Part III” is directed quite as well as the first two films in the series—no differently and no better, which is a terrible thing to say about a sixteen-year span in the career of a great filmmaker. On the other hand, the stylistic continuity among the three installments is one of the reasons for “Part III” ’s belated acclaim, now, with its reissue. The kind of romantic classicism that Coppola’s grandiose and meticulous style embodies—along with its conspicuous professionalism—is very much in vogue now, owing both to nostalgia for a time, so recent yet so distant, when Hollywood made such substantial movies on such high budgets, and to the generalized shift (at a time when a mere foothold on stability in the arts is woefully rare) from idealizing the struggling outsider to hailing the insider who has found or forged a place in the world.
The difference between “Part III” and the first two films isn’t in style; it’s that, with the third film, Coppola was passionately interested in his subject. The first two “Godfathers,” made during the age of the Vietnam War and Watergate, reflect a generalized recognition that American self-congratulatory mythology was a hollow veneer; they tore away the veil of civic virtue to show that gangsters are us, that corporate power and Mafia power were indissociable. In “Part III,” Coppola did with and to the Catholic Church what he’d previously done with and to American mythology. Where “Part I” and “Part II” tapped into a general Zeitgeist of disillusionment (which accounts significantly for its success), “Part III,” though a box-office success, is a much more personal film, with a political and emotional engine that is Coppola’s alone. In “Part III,” Coppola challenges the religion in which he was raised; he confronts the rituals of the Church, the hierarchy on which it depends, the virtual cult of personality—running in a chain from the parish priest to the archbishop to the Pope—on which it is based, and even the Church’s very notion of a mediated relationship to God. (It’s no coincidence that the movie’s voice of conscience is Michael’s ex-wife, Kay, the daughter of a Baptist minister; she’s played by Diane Keaton.) The movie is an audacious, self-scourging drama of a crisis of faith,
The movie’s theological passion is inseparable from another, obviously personal aspect of the film, one that’s too painful and intimate even to discuss in detail: the crucial dramatization (spoiler alert!) of the death of a child and of the guilt that comes with a parent’s grief. It’s a horror that Coppola and his wife, the writer and filmmaker Eleanor Coppola, endured, with the death of their son Gian-Carlo, in a boating accident, in 1986; what’s more, Gian-Carlo had been part of the family business, working with Francis Ford Coppola on the production of “Gardens of Stone” at the time of his death. The death of Mary is “Part III” ’s climactic incident, its tragic culmination—but the role of Mary, played by Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, who was nineteen years old and a nonprofessional actor, was the focus of critical hostility toward the movie at the time of its release.
Sofia had appeared in bit parts in many of her father’s previous films but never in a major dramatic role. In “Part III,” she was called on at the last minute to replace one of the most acclaimed young actors of the time, Winona Ryder, who withdrew from the role of Mary because of illness. Sofia Coppola’s performance was wrongly, absurdly, frenetically reviled by many critics at the time of the film’s release (though not by Pauline Kael, who wrote, in The New Yorker, that Coppola “has a lovely and unusual presence; she gives the film a breath of life” and added, “I grew to like her.”) Her tremulously expressive performance, which seemed so idiosyncratically low-key and indeed unusual, comes off now as utterly contemporary, in the same vein as the younger generation of actors who have populated Sofia Coppola’s own films and many low-budget independent films of the past decade.
The dreadful scene of Mary’s death moves swiftly to the ending of “Part III,” and that ending, in “The Godfather, Coda,” is indeed radically—yet infinitesimally—different. Despite the new title of the new version, Michael doesn’t die. The aged Michael, sitting alone in his garden in Sicily, doesn’t keel over; instead, he is condemned to live—and to remember—as a newly added title card explains, with wry and bitter irony, that “a Sicilian never forgets.” (Moreover, in the original, flashbacks show the aged Michael recalling Mary and his other loves in their youth, including Kay and his first wife, Apollonia; in the recut, his thoughts are only of Mary.) In 1990, with “Part III,” Coppola, barely in his fifties, imagined the consolation and the deliverance of death, and endured a cinematic terror that played like his “To be or not to be” moment, his confrontation with the horrific prospect that death would nonetheless be no relief. Now, thirty years later, Michael is cursed with a long life—and has borne the long sentence of too much time on his hands, too much time to fill with one tormenting memory. Coppola has remade the ending to fold himself back, agonizingly, into the very substance of the film.