Review: The Godfather: Part III (1991)

Why it’s better than we remember – and why we remember it so poorly.

The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are popularly lauded as masterpieces of cinema, particularly for their acting and cinematography, but above all for the way director Francis Ford Coppola set the standard for sepia-toned period dramas and representations of organised crime on screen for decades to come. In between successors Goodfellas and The Sopranos, came The Godfather: Part III – which never earned the same kind of adoration. Re-watching it nearly 30 years later, I’m left asking: why?

From cinematographer Gordon Willis perfectly continuing the look of Parts I & II, to Andy Garcia’s star turn, let’s look at why The Godfather: Part III is better than we remember – and why we remember it so poorly.

It’s on-brand

The exploration of morality, culture, family, corruption and bloody violence in Part III is in much the same style as its two predecessors. Its themes bear out through a familiar aesthetic which combines complex plot machinations, lavish set pieces, mafia deep cuts and tragic character arcs. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) descends further into the hell of his own making, he reaches ever higher for salvation. Over the three films, he reaches first to family, then to the US Senate, then finally to God – or at least, to its self-proclaimed representative on earth, the Vatican. With each level he climbs, is the death he brings (directly or indirectly); he must push through and above, to appeal higher and higher for the atonement, the peace, he is ultimately never granted. Part III completes this arc fittingly (even if wearing its King Lear-ness more overtly), and remains true to its characters and its themes.

Vincent Mancini is a bolt of lightning right through the dark Corleone tableau – a blustering, ball-grabbing, ear-biting wildcard.

It adds classic character moments to the canon

Right up there with “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business” and making offers people can’t refuse, Part III offers us perhaps the most quoted line of all the Godfather films:

Time has moved on…

The story picks up nearly twenty years later – and, in ways that sequels seldom do, characters and situations have actually progressed. Some progressions are explained, others are not. For Michael, with age has come ghosts and demons, and he is has softened (or perhaps begun to fall apart). Connie (Talia Shire), meanwhile, has hardened – in both her loyalty and her cognitive dissonance; Kay (Diane Keaton), too, has hardened in her bitterness. And other things, like the town of Corleone, have not changed at all – and this is a story point, not fanboy stasis. It feels much more like time has actually passed than is managed in certain other decades-later sequels and soft reboots

… but it looks exactly the same

Nearly two decades after shooting Parts I and II, director of photography Gordon “Prince of Darkness” Willis managed to flawlessly recreate the distinctive look of the original films in this installment. Rock bands touring the same material, year after year, usually fail to sound the same, much less when returning to the same material after a substantial break. This alone is miraculous.

Andy Garcia

Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) is no Vito Corleone, but his character and arc are engaging in their own right. From the moment Vincent Mancini enters Michael’s office to confront Joey Zaza, he’s is a bolt of lightning in the darkened tableau – a blustering, ball-grabbing, ear-biting wildcard. The next time we see Vincent, he’s bedding a sexy journalist and disposing of would-be assassins in his apartment – and this is when Garcia hits straight-up movie star status. Vincent’s arc, from the inheritor his father Sonny’s hot-blooded charisma, to heir to his uncle Michael’s mantle of Godfather, is compelling not only thanks to Garcia’s riveting portrayal, but because it rings true with the themes of The Godfather series. The family, the life, will always continue; someone young, hungry and capable had to supplant the Don for the family to continue; and Michael is in the final leg of his downward spiral – he’s finally learning that he long ago became the horror he’d tried all his life to avoid.

So why do we hate it?

At the time of its release, a lot was said about Sofia Coppola‘s acting, which I still find… distracting. It’s a big part of why the romance between her character Mary and Vincent, integral as it is to the plot, plays less naturalistically, less quirkily, than Michael and Kay’s in Part I. And in a trilogy of movies all about character and performance, this is significant.

Perhaps some audiences and critics felt Part III to be too formulaic. It’s certainly in the mould perfected by Part II – the descent into villainy culminating in a complex cross-cutting climax (whew!) of assassinations – but that mould was designed by these very filmmakers. If they created it, why shouldn’t they milk it?

Some of the dialogue is also a bit on-the-nose – and a lot of Michael’s monologuing sounds a little first-draft-y, subtext-as-text-y – but it’s at least consistent with the kind of self-reflection and contemplation of a character in his twilight, perhaps even of a man with the foreboding air of his own impending death hanging over him.

But I have a theory, which is much simpler: I think the let-down can be found in the ending. Specifically: the final shot.

Part I ends with the iconic door closing on Kay, as Michael assumes his new role as Godfather (and there’s a beautiful coda to this in Part III):

Part II ends with Michael reflecting on his murder of his own brother.

Part III ends with… a flash-forward to Al Pacino with bad old-age prosthetics.

It’s… not strong – certainly not as strong as its predecessors. It’s a shame: in the scene just before it, Pacino portrays Michael’s grief with dizzying ache and heart-rending intensity. Michael’s silent scream confronts us with an uncomfortable truth: after everything horrific, violent and obscene we’ve seen Michael do, we still have sympathy for this monster.

Ultimately, it’s all there: it’s a solid continuation and a fitting end, just not as punchy an ending. That’s perhaps what leaves the taste in one’s mouth that makes us, unfairly I think, forget the rich, visual and thematic feast that preceded it.

… and then: fans weren’t so happy about the way The Sopranos ended either…