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MOVIES : Coppola’s Glorious Disappointment : ‘The Godfather Part III’ doesn’t achieve its towering goals, but the capstone to the Corleone saga is still one of the year’s best films

<i> Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times. </i>

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

--Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972)

For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 30, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 30, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
A quote in the Dec. 23 review of “The Godfather Part III” was misattributed. The quote “Hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue” should have been attributed to the French writer La Rochefoucauld.

After 16 years, it was an offer Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t refuse. In “The Godfather Part III” (opening Tuesday citywide), he and Mario Puzo return to their franchise: the Corleone Family Saga. Once again, they take up the violent, virtuosic, densely detailed epic of gangsters and American society--of omerta and famiglia, bullets and cannoli, blood ties and blood-stained vendettas--that they spun with such staggering aplomb and world-wide impact in “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974).

This new sequel, in which Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tries to go straight and crash the Vatican itself, is another rich, broadly scaled work, shot through with brutality and brio. It has arias and grand moments to match either of its predecessors: the coldly festive opening at a celebration of a Mafia don’s charities; a nervous, panoramic Little Italy assassination; a jolting comic-violent scene in which Andy Garcia, playing the newest Corleone, faces down two would-be assassins who interrupt him in the middle of an assignation.

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The movie carries the trilogy’s recurring major figure--Pacino’s Michael Corleone--from 1979 to his death, knitting together dozens of old plot strands, themes and symbolic motifs. It brings back the original cinematographer, Gordon Willis, that virtuoso of deep shadows, metallic sunlight and deceptively flat perspectives. It reintroduces a gallery of familiar faces--including sister Connie (Talia Shire), divorced wife Kay (Diane Keaton), and ultra-disturbing background figure torpedo Al Neri (Richard Bright)--and drives them toward an operatic climax, where, to the strains of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Michael meets a family destiny right out of Verdi, Shakespeare or James M. Cain.

Yet, though “Godfather III” is definitely one of the best American movies of the year--a work of high ensemble talent and intelligence, gorgeously mounted and crafted, artistically audacious in ways that most American movies don’t even attempt--it’s still a disappointment. It fails on the highest level. It’s not the capstone we might have wanted Coppola to make, not quite a fitting climax to a series that ranks among the American cinema’s most remarkable sustained achievements.

It’s a matter, perhaps, of both script and tone. The first two “Godfathers,” dominated by Pacino’s menacingly passive Michael and by the magisterially gravelly croak of Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro as the old and young Don Vito Corleone, were violent tales done with incongruous subtlety and discretion.

Back then, in his early 30s, Coppola’s narrative style was marvelously circumspect. He bathed those earlier films in a tender melancholy, a sense of reverie that stood in eerie counterpoint to the lurid events and horrific gangland killings. Part I is more boisterous and bloody, Part II more complex, poetic and charged with grief. But neither ever seemed to raise a voice unnecessarily, or strain for an effect.

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Part III, by contrast, has scenes or plot twists--a flabbergasting helicopter attack on a Cosa Nostra commission meeting; the incongruously rapid rise of Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son, Vincent Mancini (Garcia); a Byzantine hive of intrigue revealed at the Vatican--where the tone seems forced, under-felt, almost strident. Is that copter rub-out an allusion to the “Ride of the Valkyries” in “Apocalypse Now”? What prompts the operatic vocation of Michael’s son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), beyond Coppola’s own musical family? Why are dialogues between the partially reconciled Michael and Kay so bland and perfunctory? And how can Michael muster the muscle to stave off attacks from other Mafiosi after going completely “legitimate”?

Since “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola has changed into a very different filmmaker than he was in 1974. Now, he regularly goes for visual opulence, extravagant effect; his masterpiece of the ‘80s was the film noir , German Expressionist, neo-realist teen melodrama “Rumble Fish.” But “Godfather III,” for all its obvious quality and visual bravura, lacks the fullness or inevitability of the first two films: the ways Coppola and Puzo seemed to skim easily over the social and criminal terrain of the first half of the 20th Century. In a way, this movie seems to come from a whole different world--and not simply because it’s set in 1979, five years after the release of “Godfather II,” and 20 years after the conclusion of the events it portrays.

In “Godfather III,” there’s something sad, slightly vacant and dourly dreamy in Pacino’s eyes as the 59-year-old Michael. Set deep in a bulldog mug, with a crew-cut receding back, they’re the eyes of a man who’d rather be almost anywhere but in his immediate surroundings, a man who--like the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find"--believes “There ain’t no real pleasure in life.”

It’s Pacino’s face--its wasted, bitter, ravaged resignation--that many people will recall longest from “Godfather III.” And they’ll also remember the leaner, slicker, more wolfish features of Andy Garcia as the up-and-coming new-style don. Garcia seizes the screen here, and gives an explosive, tigerishly self-confident performance. Playing Sonny Corleone’s short-fused, illegitimate son--who was being conceived in the wedding scene of the first “Godfather"--Garcia creates a tense, narcissistic killer. Unlike Michael, he’s supremely equipped by instinct to be a gangster: a man of fast reflexes, intense ambition and no moral qualms. In his first confrontation with Joey Zaza (Joe Mantegna), Michael’s successor and rival, Vincent nearly bites off his ear.

Pacino, on the other hand, plays Michael as a tough, self-contained pro, trapped in gloomy self-examination after a life of brutal, near-reflexive decisions and actions. He’s rotting inside. His disease--diabetes--suggests here spiritual as well as physical decay. And, after rising to the top, he’s now trying to go beyond, to move hundreds of millions of dollars, buy God’s emissaries and enter Heaven through the back door.

“Michael Corleone, do you renounce Satan?” a priest asked Michael during the baptism of his godson in the first “Godfather,” a scene that was shockingly intercut with the systematic execution of his enemies. The irony of that legendary climax lay in the juxtaposition of outward piety or conformity with covert slaughter; an irony carried on even more heavily here, with one church scene after another, and Michael actually confessing three decades of crimes to the future Pope John Paul I (Raf Vallone). Michael, an outsider in a family of gangsters, had become the most dangerous criminal of all: the soured idealist, the man who knows and hates evil, but does it anyway. He was the murderer who fully accepted Montaigne’s maxim, “Hypocrisy is the debt vice pays to virtue.”.

There’s always been an obvious connection between Coppola and Michael; Coppola deliberately played it up in “The Godfather,” giving Michael the middle name Francis. In “Godfather III,” the identification becomes almost eerie. Michael is a man from a tight-knit family, risen to the top, living a life of tension and near financial ruin, desperately trying to pull away from a business that won’t let him go.

When Coppola decides to end the film with the possible sacrifice of a child, it obviously has personal reverberations. So do Michael’s financial takeovers. And so does his tight-knit family: Talia Shire’s newly icy, resolute fury; the artistic aspirations of Anthony; Kay’s moral superiority.

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Coppola and Puzo notably ignore politics this time around, but as they focus on the last ravages of the Corleone family, driven to their dissolution, they also create a vast incestuous tangle among the worlds of crime, business, religion and art. In this corrupt alliance, only the world of art is presented as uncompromised and pure. It’s the world that the idealists like Anthony try to escape into; it’s also a world that, as in the performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana,” bizarrely mirrors everything that happens outside it.

But religion is just as tainted as the others, polluted by its vast acquisition of wealth and power. Coppola and Puzo deliberately play here with references to the Vatican Bank scandal, as well as rumors about the possible murder of the Pope. “All my life I kept trying to go up in society,” Michael remarks to Vincent. “Where everything higher up was legal. But the higher I go, the crookeder it gets. Where the hell does it end?”

In hell, obviously, which is exactly where “Godfather III” leaves Michael: the emotional Hades of a man who has sacrificed the only thing that gave all his crimes meaning-- famiglia . In the last shot of the movie, an orange--a fruit that has had numerous sinister connotations through all the episodes of the saga--slips from his fingers.

In 1972, when he made the first of the “Godfather” movies, Coppola scored an unprecedented coup. He seemed to have made a movie that was “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind” simultaneously: a huge blockbuster, biggest of its time, that also had depth, social vision and multiple layers of meaning, a film that satisfied both the vast pop culture audience and the intelligentsia. For this, he became a hero to many film critics, some of whom were all too eager to cast him as villain or betrayer--or fool--later on.

The Corleone saga was something unusual in gangster movies: a crime epic that presented the Mafia family and, especially, their leonine, mumbling patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in the kind of sweepingly romantic terms that characterized more conventional, affirmative family epics. And part of its vast audience obviously ignored Coppola’s dark subversion of their image; they found the Corleones endearing, Michael almost heroic. Coppola brilliantly used actors--Brando, Pacino, Keaton, Shire, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale and the others--whose sensibility opened up their parts in unique ways. They seemed-- still seem--more like a family of artists than a family of criminals. As a group, they had incongruous sensitivity, delicacy and grace--and vulnerability as well.

Coppola didn’t cast gangster “types” except in the non-Corleone roles and that’s what gives the movie its tense undercurrents. The most moving moment in all three movies came from the late John Cazale as Fredo in “Godfather II": delicate, enervated, reclining painfully beside Michael, who will soon kill him, crying out his rage and pain at being passed over. Sweet, ineffectual, doomed Fredo didn’t belong in the average gangster movie. But then, none of them did: not even Caan’s Sonny, the hot-headed ladies’ man.

But time’s passage has destroyed or altered the context in which those first two “Godfather” movies were produced--a momentarily fertile climate for offbeat movies in the early ‘70s--and replaced it with another, shallower era where financial stakes are huge and artistic gambles minimal. The daringly structured “Godfather II” probably couldn’t be made today, and 16 horrifically intense and sometimes brutal years have intervened for Coppola: years filled with sudden success, financial catastrophes, spectacular public and artistic reversals and family tragedies.

In a way, we can sense all of this in the new film. Perhaps because the first script was written too hastily, in six weeks instead of the six months Coppola requested, the writing is both overly formulaic and strangely unguarded and open. Despite frequent rewriting afterward, Coppola hasn’t let his attitudes and feelings get swallowed up in the material. They keep jutting out: most obviously in the way he uses his lightly experienced and miscast daughter Sofia (a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder) as Michael’s daughter Mary, lavishing an almost defiant paternal affection on every shot. Oddly enough, “Godfather III” is in some ways a typical, perhaps too typical, movie sequel and, in others, a startlingly confessional film. Real anguish and pain keep seeping up through the predictable kinks of the story.

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One of the most attractive things about Coppola is the very intensity and range of his ambition, the way he wants to be a super-filmmaker, master of everything: a fine writer, a visual virtuoso, a technical whiz-bang, a master of complex effects and camera movements and an actor’s director generating the raw, improvisatory magic of a Cassavetes or Scorsese. But sometimes you can’t be everything, and this movie’s major weakness lies in the area that’s always been one of Coppola’s prime assets: his screenwriting. The frequent rewriting after the original six-week wonder can’t overcome flimsiness or broadness in the framework. In the end, “Godfather III” is more conventional than its antecedents.

It’s inevitable. On short notice, Coppola and Puzo get what you would expect: the broad symbolic outlines and motifs and the big “aria” scenes. But they haven’t been able to tie everything together, fill in all the connections, remove scenes that obviously don’t work, re-create the seamless embellishment and profusion of the earlier films. Six weeks was an offer they should have refused.

Almost equally damaging: the defection of Robert Duvall, due to a salary dispute. In 1974, “Godfather II” also lost Richard Castellano’s Clemenza to salary demands; Coppola had to kill off the character and give his lines to Michael Gazzo’s Frankie Pentangeli. But Duvall’s Tom Hagen is more crucial than Clemenza. As the Corleones’ adopted son and consigliere , he’s so inextricably tied into the whole texture and emotional weave of the story that he’s always seemed indispensable, perhaps even part of some inevitable, slowly ripening climax, a last bloody act where Hagen would play combatant in a final betrayal and clash with Michael. Writing Duvall out of the movie seems painfully unnecessary. Leaving a priestly son (John Savage’s Andrew Hagen) in his place, while handing over some of his lines to George Hamilton, as a silken new consigliere , is a poor substitute.

In light of all this, it may seem perverse to call “Godfather III” one of the year’s best American movies. But it is. The brilliance and fertility of Coppola’s talents and the excellence of his cast and crew pulls him through once again.

He’s always been a great assembler of talent; if he’s a dream-castle builder, he’s a supremely generous one. Visually, this is the most gorgeous of the three “Godfathers"; Willis and production designer Dean Tavoularis have outdone themselves. And it’s loaded with fascinating moments: Garcia’s magnetic psychopathology, Pacino’s weary pursuit of grace, Eli Wallach’s angelic duplicities as Don Altobello and, especially, that climactic opera house set-piece, with its bravura echoes of “Senso” and Hitchcock’s second “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” And if the movie loses some--maybe even most-- of the battles you wish it had won, it still scores a magnificent final victory by rounding out a series that ranks with the most ambitious and extraordinary creations in American movies.

When you try so hard for beauty, complexity and richness, you can leave the audience with a banquet even when you fail. That’s what Coppola does here. The problems that afflict him in this compromised “Godfather III” (rated R, for sex, violence and language) are ones perhaps endemic to today’s big-budget moviemaking. Its triumphs are the victories--perhaps partial but certainly precious--of moviemakers working together, of artistic devotion and ambition, of the ensemble, the famiglia.

The “Godfather” series--like “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles--has perhaps been Coppola’s crown jewel and also his curse. But, if he hasn’t completed it perfectly, at least he’s completed it with passion. And passion is something that should never have a price. ‘The Godfather Part III’ Al Pacino Michael Corleone Diane Keaton Kay Adams Talia Shire Connie Corleone Rizzi Andy Garcia Vincent Mancini Eli Wallach Don Altobello Joe Mantegna Joey Zaza Sofia Coppola Mary Corleone

A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Francis Ford Coppola production. Director/producer Francis Ford Coppola. Executive producers Fred Fuchs and Nicholas Gage. Screenplay by Mario Puzo, Coppola. Cinematographer Gordon Willis. Editors Barry Malkin, Lisa Fruchtman, Walter Murch. Costumes Milena Canonero. Music Carmine Coppola, Nino Rota. Production design Dean Tavoularis. Supervising art director Alex Tavoularis. Supervising set decorator Gary Fettis. Sound Richard Beggs. Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (language, violence, sex and nudity).


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