Is The Godfather Part III really that bad?

The Godfather Part III received mixed reviews when it arrived in 1990, but James argues that the belated sequel deserves reassessment...

During a two-month period in which we have seen a new Pope elected, a Scottish cardinal disgraced, and the Archbishop of Canterbury enthroned, what better time to return to a film that uses political intrigue inside the corridors of power at the Vatican as its driving point. The film I refer to is of course The Godfather Part III, and the question I ask is this: is it really as bad as most make out? 

The plot, concocted by director Francis Ford Coppola and author Mario Puzo, is a screenplay inspired by newspaper and magazine headlines, which moves the Corleone family into the inner circles of corruption inside the Vatican. Inspired by actual events – the untimely suddenness of John Paul I’s death, the scandals at the Vatican Bank and the body of a Vatican banker found hanging from a London bridge – these are all artfully intertwined with the family’s story.

The film opens, as each of the trilogy does, with a celebration of sorts, shortly after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) receives a papal award for donating $100m to the Catholic Church to carry out charitable work in Sicily. Already, the unimaginable wealth that Michael has accumulated in the intervening years between the second and third chapters places this film on a different footing than its predecessors; the sort of financial stratosphere not normally associated with gangster films.

You could say that it has ideas above its station, but it quickly becomes apparent that the real themes of the film are forgiveness and wealth and how the two rarely mix, in keeping with parts one and two. Fredo’s death, or murder to be more exact, is explored through Michael’s confession to Cardinal Lamberto and the constant nagging questions of his daughter, Mary, played by director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia Coppola. 

Ad – content continues below

The fundamental theme throughout the trilogy is that Michael is saddled with a life he didn’t ask for, nor had any real overwhelming desire to pursue. It’s chosen him through a mixture of consequence and circumstance. The scene in The Godfather where Michael essentially rescues his father Vito in hospital after police collusion with a rival family sees him planned to be assassinated is very telling; he realises his hands are not shaking, while the baker Enzo’s are uncontrollable, best seen when he reaches for a cigarette shortly after a threatening car passes by. He’s more cut out for the gangster life than he thinks, but he wants to take a different route, seeking to ‘legitimise’ the family business.

The character of Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), an unscrupulous local racket man and the day-to-day runner of the old Corleone family business, acts as a link between Michael’s old life and his new one. Joey has a score to settle with Vincent (Andy Garcia), who is Sonny’s bastard son, which highlights no matter how much wealth Michael has managed to pull together over the years in the name of ‘business’, he cannot forget his ties to the street and the cloth from whence he came. He can legitimise his business, but his past and his soul are off limits.

This film becomes somewhat detached when it shifts from the US to Italy, but this is also where we’re treated to our meatiest scenes between Kaye (Diane Keaton) and Michael. Throughout the trilogy, in what is ostensibly a man’s world, the female characters throughout the first two instalments are woefully underwritten, but Kaye is given the sort of acknowledgement here that was missing before.Of course, too much of a good thing leads us to the casting problems. 

Ah, Sofia. Sofia, Sofia, Sofia. My overriding memory of the film as a young’un was the ridicule with which everyone tore into her performance. Granted, it’s awkward in parts, even painful in others, but watching the film back now and trying to approach it with a modicum of objectivity, it really isn’t the trilogy-killer it was once viewed as by most; she simply isn’t a central enough character to be capable of doing that. 

The reviews all but killed Coppola’s acting career and led her behind the camera to her acclaimed directorial career, so in a sense she’s found her true calling. But still, there is an awful lot more good going on here than one apparent display of misplaced nepotism (and even then, she was only cast because Winona Ryder dropped out at the last minute), with the incestual storyline between Vincent and Mary both awkward and ill-advised. Memo to the producers: incest may be a game the whole family can play, but that doesn’t mean we want front row seats.

The weight of the film rests solely on Al Pacino’s shoulders, though, and he is in nearly every scene, unlike the first two which have a more ensemble feel. With Robert Duvall written out after a conflict with the studio, this leaves just Diane Keaton for company in the heavyweight bracket. Brando, John Cazale, Duvall, James Caan, Robert De Niro and Sterling Hayden have all fallen by the wayside, with the only remnant of the first two films being the lurking presence of Talia Shire’s sister Connie, bizarrely seen in a number of funeral garments throughout. Is she in grieving over the state of her career? Answers on a postcard.

Ad – content continues below

Where Part III faltered, though, was the timing. The first film was released in 1972, the second in 1974 and the third in 1990, and as the latest Star Wars trilogy found out to its cost – as did the fourth Indiana Jones film – such a gap only serves to heighten expectations to an unmanageable level, meaning disappointment is an inevitable and somewhat unavoidable consequence of the passing of time.During the 16 years between parts two and part three, Pacino changed as an actor, evolving from the commanding, powerful screen presence of his early years into the shouty, angry scene-stealer we’re all familiar with today. 

You remain conscious throughout that you are watching Pacino play Michael rather than him just being Michael. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling display of an actor comfortable in his own skin, and he brings gravitas by the bucketload. Scarface has a lot to answer for on both counts…

That the film is spread over two continents sees us introduced to the humble Cardinal and Don Lucchese, a power broker between the Italian Mafia and the Vatican. This conflicts well with Michael’s desire to own a controlling share in a large company called International Immobiliare. The killing of the Cardinal after he is made Pope feels a little forced as a plot device, but the inner wranglings of the Vatican’s money troubles – thought to be based on a real fraud in the late 80s – are nicely worked and leads to the crescendo at the end played off against his son’s opera in Sicily, with echoes of the multiple killing finish of the first film.

It’s these echoes where true fans of the trilogy will find comfort; whether that be Vincent’s mother being played by the same actress; the return of an ageing Don Tommasino; the parallels of the market from Zasa’s killing to Don Facchini’s murder at the hands of Vito; Johnny Fontane signing to Connie; or the drawing Michael is given by his son. The actors around the plot may have evolved, aged and changed, but in the universe of the Corleone’s, they are always there, plotting, scheming, growing older. It’s these echoes which strike at the very heart of the trilogy, and these small touches prove excellent continuity markers.

In reality, as the above testifies, this is far from a perfect film and I wouldn’t disagree that it’s comfortably the worst of the three, with a director past the peak of his powers. But it certainly deserves more credit than it’s been given in the past, and an end to the thinking that the third part was a monumental misstep of ruinous proportions. There’s no real re-writing of history required here, simply more an appreciation that Part III is a film killed by expectation more than anything else, which when you come to think about it, says more about the viewer than the actual film.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below