The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone Proves a Little Less is Infinitely More

Francis Ford Coppola cut from the third film for Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, but it gives so much.

Al Pacino in The Godfather Coda The Death of Michael Corleone
Photo: Paramount Pictures

This Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone analysis contains spoilers.

The ending will be discussed at length. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse. Find the film, watch it with fresh eyes, then come back and celebrate The Death of Michael Corleone.

“The power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” Michael Corleone observes in the revelatory new opening of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. He may well be speaking for Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather Part III concluded the family saga, made a profit for Paramount Pictures, and garnered seven Oscar nominations in its time, but Coppola has never been forgiven for it. The 1990 film has such an undeserved reputation, it almost feels like there was a vendetta against it. Having seen the new cut several times, the director can finally be absolved of sins he never committed.

Coppola’s finale has been bashed for its structure. Critics said he was just going through the motions and the arc of the first two films, and doing it much too slowly. However, the filmmaker was making one long film, and this is the conclusion. It references the other two films because the reality which forms this family history is well known. It is canon, the arcs are similar because each film dissembles William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The Godfather, Part III also has the balls to wear its opera cape up front, and it’s a Sicilian one. But does it move as slow as critics accused? We get an ear bite in the first quarter, a helicopter mass execution, and enough intrigue for three Hitchcock films.

Ad – content continues below

The Godfather, Coda is not much different than The Godfather Part III. Coppola only cut five minutes from the 162 minutes of the original. But like a good haircut, it makes a difference, even though I think he took too much off the top. The streamlining speeds it up and makes it feel more tragic. Michael’s regrets are palpable, the dangers he and his family face are recognizable. It’s the same movie but tighter. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are perfect films, like Casablanca or Citizen Kane, not a single scene is less than flawlessly framed, acted, and situated. The third one is a little sloppy. It happens. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is sloppy and works perfectly because of it. To this writer, Mean Streets packs more of an emotional punch than Goodfellas, which is also cinematic perfection from setup to cut. The Godfather III is rough around the edges.

Coppola loves the editing room as much as any wine vineyard. He recut Apocalypse Now Redux, and added scenes which may not have been imperative, but are wholly welcome. Coppola filled in the storyline to The Cotton Club for his reworking. When The Godfather trilogy was recut and re-released as a seven-hour chronological saga, it was like hearing the Beatles’ White Album with discarded tracks included. Scenes which landed on the cutting room floor were put back in. The Godfather, Coda takes scenes out. We get less of Eli Wallach’s Machiavellian cannoli-lover Don Altobello, which is a shame because his performance has grown on me since my initial viewing. Coppola also cuts Talia Shire’s Connie Corleone when she goes full-on Lucretia Borgia, ordering an execution in a chapel.

The Godfather Part III is the purest of the saga’s films in terms of cinematic input. The first film was a masterful adaptation of Mario Puzo’s book. The second one also drew heavily from the book. By the third, the motion picture saga was on its own. Part III was also the first of the films which didn’t have the Godfather himself, Vito Corleone, in it. Marlon Brando’s performance is more than iconic; it is Americana itself. Robert De Niro bridges generations as the young Vito in The Godfather Part II. Al Pacino’s Michael is the only godfather here.

“The Pope, the Holy Father, on this very day has blessed Michael Corleone. You think you know better than the Pope?”

The original cut of The Godfather Part III opens on the flooded Corleone compound in Lake Tahoe and dissolves to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. The Godfather, Coda opens with a low-angle establishing shot of the exterior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It looks like a relic of another time. It is surrounded by the cold steel and glass of modern architecture. The midtown cathedral represents old money.

The first scene is a meeting between Michael Corleone and head of the Vatican Bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly). The Vatican is selling controlling shares in real estate conglomerate Internazionale Immobiliare to the Corleone family. These details don’t come out until 30 minutes into The Godfather Part III. By now putting the Vatican meeting at the beginning, followed by the Vito Corleone Foundation celebration, it fits better into the structure of The Godfather, and gives the proper weight to the deals with the Holy Roman Church.

Ad – content continues below

The scene also reestablishes the Corleones as a family of great wealth. They have so much money they can bail out the Vatican. We don’t know how they made that money; we get very little detail about the years between The Godfather Part II and the late 1970s, when The Godfather, Coda is set.

We assume the Corleones had nothing to do with heroin, probably sidestepped any involvement in the Kennedy assassination, and stuck with the traditional vices, which could be best maneuvered into real power. We can imagine a Hoffa scenario because of their union involvement, but we get little indications of business beyond the chase for legitimacy. With this deal, Michael will be one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Moving the meeting also casts the archbishop in the same role that the funeral director played in the opening scene of The Godfather. The priest’s favor becomes his regret, but in a way that inverts the structure of the original film. The funeral director came to Don Corleone seeking justice after chasing the American dream, believing in it with all his soul as much as he believed in holy Mary, mother of God.

Archbishop Gilday’s impossible dream is to turn that around, to siphon the American success of the Corleone family back to Italy, after skimming his part, of course. Michael is awarded the Order of St. Sebastian from the Catholic Church after the charity run by his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) donates $100 million to the institution. Immobiliare is the other side of the coin, and it is a beautiful flip.

The move also fits the film closer to the original 1972 classic, positioning the Vito Corleone Foundation ceremony as the wedding scene, and introducing us to the players, and the ones who don’t play well with others. Joe Mantegna plays Joey Zasa, who is a stand-in for the John Gotti ascendancy, running Don Corleone’s old territory now that the family has moved up. Eli Wallach ties us into the family behind the family. Vincent Mancini is the bastard son of Sonny Corleone and his mistress Lucy. Actor Andy Garcia clearly enjoys this part. He turns into James Caan a few times.

Sofia Coppola’s performance has been called flat, amateurish, and not in the same universe as the rest of the film. Mary is an important part. For most of the audience, she is the most recognizable character as far as an entry into the world of the underworld. Sofia did it because her father needed her, and quickly. Winona Ryder’s unexpected bout of physical exhaustion didn’t fit with Paramount’s time schedule, and the studio’s replacement options didn’t fit the age of the character.

Ad – content continues below

Coppola’s 18-year-old daughter, Sofia, still had baby fat on her face. She’d made appearances in Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married, and was used to working with her father, even though she was not an actor. European filmmakers cast non-actors all the time; they bring a real quality to roles. Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi in The Godfather, was a former wrestler who came to the set as the bodyguard of a ranking Colombo family member. Martin Scorsese’s mother Catherine makes an appearance in The Godfather Part III. Sofia is playing herself, a college freshman who wants to help her father.

This makes the gnocchi scene feel almost uncomfortably incestuous. Mary is Vincent’s first cousin, and we can see in the way they look at each other; it’s wrong even though it feels so right. Sofia is natural in her scenes, not emotive. She is the tourist the audience needs to circumnavigate the treacherous waters. Mary is the civilian who becomes the collateral damage of the Corleone family life. She takes the bullet intended for her father, Don Michael Corleone. Sofia did the same for her father, becoming the scapegoat for a job she took to get his movie in on time.

Mary’s death scene has been called the worst in the history of motion pictures. It never was, and as presented in the recut, it’s entirely, emotionally effective. It’s not Bette Davis in Dark Victory, and even though it happens on the stone steps of a church, it isn’t James Cagney’s death scene in The Roaring Twenties. It isn’t meant to be. It is sad. The death itself is one of the most underplayed in film, but the music gives it the tragedy to match Michael’s reaction.

It is hard to resist the pull of the music when considering how much of a worthy ending this cut is to The Godfather saga. The themes are the trilogy’s blood and wine. Composer Nino Rota tells us when to celebrate and how to mourn. We relive Michael’s lost love Appollonia more through our ear’s memory than we do from the faded black and white photograph in the old Sicilian villa. And his reunion with Kay evokes the post-war era they met in. The music ties the film together so beautifully that this time around it feels like the skin of the original, rather than its clothes.

By the end of the film, the emperor has no clothes. Michael thinks he can break a glass ceiling through legitimate business but admits “The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.” Senators and presidents have men killed. The church is no different. Legitimacy is an illusion. Coppola saw The Godfather Part III as an epilogue. Paramount wanted to grow a franchise. Coppola had to be persuaded to make a sequel to the first film. Paramount wanted Coca-Cola instead of wine. And they treated The Godfather Part III like the Fredo of Godfather movies.

Fredo is all over this film. How he died is the first question Mary asks Vincent. It’s the last rite in Michael’s confession to the Vatican priest who will become Pope, a scene which contains one of the funniest exchanges in the film. Michael tells Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone) a list of his sins would take up too much time. The first cut may have been the deepest, but the final cut in The Godfather, Coda is the most ironic. Coppola adds the subtitle, in quotations, apart from the puppeteer logo of the films and book, and then takes exactly that promise away.

Ad – content continues below

The final scene cut from The Death of Michael Corleone is the death of Michael Corleone.

The Godfather Part III ends as Michael is sitting alone outside a villa in Sicily. All family debts have been settled, but he has no family left. He is wearing dark glasses, slumps in his chair, loses his grip on the orange in his lap, and falls dead to the ground. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone ends, not only with him still alive, but wishing him Cent’anni, telling the audience it means “for long life” and reminding viewers “a Sicilian never forgets.”

The phrase actually translates to 100 years. Imagine how many Godfather sequels could be made in that time. Michael is left alive, alone. Atonement is beyond him. He loses his family just as he is on the precipice of finally being able to give them what they need. But the coda to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is an allegory to what Paramount wanted, more life. Yes, Al Pacino’s Don Michael Corleone spent all this time waiting for them to pull him back in.

The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is available now on Blu-ray and digital.


5 out of 5