Roger Ebert famously criticized The Godfather Part III for being completely based on continuity, going so far as to say that the movie cannot be understood without having seen the previous two movies. It’s an odd criticism given that the movie is called The Godfather Part III. The Godfather Part II might indeed be more “stand alone” than the last movie in the series – but it’s a series. The Godfather Part I, II, and III. That’s all it promises. Maybe what Ebert was getting at is that The Godfather Part III doesn’t intensify, augment, deepen, or even teach us anything new about the characters and situations in the first two movies. The last film of the Godfather series is, as Coppola has said himself, a kind of epilogue, and that’s exactly what it feels like.
Think back to that last image of the older Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. A man who has killed or alienated everyone he ever loved, thinking back to the moment when he first separated himself from his family. Did you get any sense that he would reconcile with his wife, raise healthy and well-adjusted children, or ever be completely free of his family’s mafia background? No. Not at all. We see the ghost of a great man, looking back on his life, alone forever in the bleak winter of his own life, and everything you feel in that moment is made smaller when watching The Godfather Part III.
It’s not just Sophia Coppola’s poor acting, although that doesn’t help. (Up until just before shooting, Winona Ryder was going to play Mary Corleone. Would that have been better?) It’s not just the plot, which has an ad hoc feel – likely the case, since Coppola had only six weeks to write it. It’s not just the emotional void caused by the absence of Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen. It’s not the arbitrary trip to Italy meant to mimic the structure of the previous films, or Andy Garcia’s predictable ham-handedness, or Dianne Keaton’s seeming boredom at the whole thing, and oddly I don’t even think it’s the fact that Coppola did it for money. I mean, he did it for money, for sure. He’d had a long standing offer to make a third Godfather movie, but he didn’t take the offer simply because the story was over. But that’s not it.
Conceiving the story as an epilog, Coppola forced himself into the last film of what I’ve come to think of as his nostalgia phase. The whole movie looks back. The Godfather Part II looks back in an energetic and active way while simultaneously showing us the kind of future Michael is building. It actively stretches in both directions. The Godfather Part III is a movie that could have happened in Michael’s mind at the end of The Godfather Part II.
Naturally a lot of this feel from Coppola’s movies at the time is tied to his bankruptcy and debt. Debt ties us to the past, and forces us into against our will into a life of looking back, a life of nostalgia, a life lived in epilog. The Godfather Part III is that final nostalgic blast from Coppola, the last time he’ll look back at his past successes and failures in order to set himself free. The movie is tremendously sad for me, and I tend to imagine that it’s rather sad for Coppola as well.
Next week: Coppola makes a fresh start.