By Matthew Waters
The final frame of The Godfather part II paints a grisly portrait. Michael Corleone is sitting by himself, empty eyes scanning the immediate terrain. He had defeated the people who threatened his life, but at a horrible cost. Circumstances forced him to make a decision that preserved his existence, but evaporated his spirit. Perhaps the ruthless mafia boss is pondering at that moment whether his survival was worthwhile, considering the price. The Godfather part II is highly regarded within most critical circles. It has a 98 percent fresh rating on rottentomatoes.com.
It was a film that redefined the concept of a sequel, perhaps even surpassing the classic initial installment. The Godfather part II established that character narratives could transcend the boundaries of a single motion picture.
The lake front property on Lake Tahoe in Timberland, Cali. where the climactic sequence of The Godfather part II was shot.
The Godfather part II was a gambit in terms of story structure. The movie is separated between the machinations of Michael and a flashback to New York at the beginning of the last century. That story thread is dominated by his father, Vito, a struggling immigrant played by Robert De Niro. Vito dives into a criminal lifestyle after confronting a neighborhood extortionist with loose ties to the mafia. The two stories do not emotionally intersect. There is no cathartic, clarifying moment demonstrating why these two narratives are being presented within the same film. The effect is akin to experiencing a family album; De Niro is acting out an imaginary history unattached to the film’s main plot involving deceit, treachery, and high stakes jockeying for underworld control of a rebellion torn Cuba. At the time of its release, Roger Ebert gave a disappointed summation, specifically citing that perceived plot hole:
“Coppola seems to hold a certain ambivalence toward his material… How did Coppola feel toward the Godfather? ‘The Godfather, Part II’ moves both forward and backward in time from the events in ‘The Godfather,’ in an attempt to resolve our feelings about the Corleones. In doing so, it provides for itself a structural weakness from which the film never recovers, but it does something even more disappointing: It reveals a certain simplicity in Coppola’s notions of motivation and characterization that wasn’t there in the elegant masterpiece of his earlier film.”
The Godfather part II is practically American canon. But with the film, Francis Ford Coppola risked alienating certain audiences expecting definite structures and themes to emerge. It just so happened that brilliant performances by a dizzyingly talented cast and Coppola’s outstanding direction ultimately outweighed any concerns about narrative thrust.
In this respect, the reputation chasm separating The Godfather part II from The Godfather part III becomes fascinating to ponder. Any worthwhile sequel will break through the boundaries of its predecessor. The story scope can be widened, as demonstrated in The Godfather part II or Return of the Jedi, or even narrowed, an approach taken by the controversial Alien 3. Either way, there must be a tenable shift in theme, plot, or character motivation. Something must be different, lest convention create staleness. When the characters and audiences are not convincingly challenged by the events of a sequel, the movie will disappoint. It will, in fact, feel like an advertisement for a movie that never really existed, instead of an actual film. There are many worthy excuses for subpar sequels. Ultimately though, filmmaking is an innate expression. Plato might be wearing 3D glasses these days, but he’d still be watching shadows on the wall. If a film is not driven by the primal desperation to create and entertain, it will fail.
Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, who collaborated together on The Godfather films, adhered to the successful sequel formula while creating The Godfather part III. The scope of the story was expanded, and not only within physical realms. Even sinister people have emotional worlds, and the wreckage reaped by Michael’s past actions is explored in painful detail. Physically, Michael is attempting to make a deal with the Vatican that will render him a rich man and his business interests legitimate. Mentally, he is tortured by his past, especially as it concerns his fateful decision regarding older brother Fredo in The Godfather part II. He projects whatever light remaining in his life onto his daughter Mary, played by Sofia Coppola. Michael has a distant relationship with his son, Tony, a working actor. Kay, his estranged ex-wife, can barely stand being in the same room as him during the film’s first act.
The Godfather part III brings harsh judgment upon the vacant morality running rampant through the previous films in the series. Including the Vatican storyline that allowed Coppola to rummage through the depths of the human soul, our obsession with greed and attempts to conceal darkness in veils of holiness.
The film finds a weakened Michael Corleone. He slips into diabetic seizures while screaming the name of his dead brother. His mannerisms do not possess the liquid grace of the Michael found earlier in the series. He must be protected by a pit-bull enforcer named Vincent, the bastard son of his brother Sonny. Andy Garcia is convincing in the role, displaying sociopathic stoicism. Pacino is brilliant, a high-wire performance portraying the impossibilities of evolution in the face of a life corrupted nearly beyond recognition.
Ultimately, everything backfires on Michael. His beloved daughter becomes romantically entangled with Vincent. The Vatican is corrupt. And the final, epic scene outside an opera house is an excruciating denouement. Coppola turned the screws on the audience. The final shot of The Godfather part II portrayed a broken man, but we could still romanticize the empty gangster heroism of Corleone. We could rationalize that he was protecting his family.
The Godfather part III, however, drives a stake through those notions. And even though many justify their dismissal of the film by citing Sophia Coppola’s unsure performance, the total tonal shift employed by her father may also be a factor. In the end, the film’s enforcer fires a decisive shot, before promptly pissing himself. If the audience were to look at him as a hero, they would have to ask themselves a few pertinent questions.
Hal Hinson, a critic with The Washington Post, surmised the opposing viewpoint in his review of the film from 1990:
“Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather Part III’ isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a failure of heartbreaking proportions… in supplying the final chapter of the saga, it also sullies what came before. It makes you wish it had never been made. Coppola’s star has dimmed significantly over the 16 years since the last ‘Godfather’ film, but to see this third installment is to watch it fall out of the sky altogether. ‘The Godfather Part III’ is the work of an artist estranged from his talent, a lost soul. In continuing the story of the Corleones, not only does Coppola fail to build on what he and his screenwriter Mario Puzo previously created; he also seems oblivious to what had made his story so compelling to begin with.” (Hinson)
Christopher Nolan is a director in the mold of the great challengers, like Coppola. If Batman fans walk out of the theater this weekend feeling angry about certain creative decisions, perhaps, in time, they will eventually thank their hero.
1. Hinson, Hal. “‘The Godfather Part III'” The Washington Post. N.p., 25 Dec. 1990. Web. 16 July 2012.