Rearview Mirror: “The Godfather Part III”

We come to the third best, cousincest Godfather before the day of its 30th anniversary.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.


I watched the Godfather trilogy for the first time the summer before I left for college. I wanted to arrive at freshman orientation having seen the movies people talk about, because having informed movie opinions is a cornerstone of adulthood. But I was already familiar with the plot, and not just through cultural osmosis; my dad used to summarize The Godfather for me as a bedtime story. What can I say? He didn’t care for Harry Potter, so he’d pick a quotable line and explain the context behind it. What the gun was, what the cannoli was, what it meant to make someone an offer they can’t refuse. His favorite was “Now who’s being naive, Kay?” So when I finally sat down to watch Godfathers I and II, I was of course impressed, but I also felt a certain recognition. They were as my dad had described them, and they were as good as people said. All just as expected.

Part III was different. Not a bedtime story. Whenever I asked my dad what the third movie was about, he would say, “bookkeeping at the Vatican,” which was boring enough I didn’t have any follow-up questions. He’d failed to mention that it’s about a young woman, and he definitely didn’t say anything about the cousin fucking. Instead, he just told me it was no good. And he was right…or was he?

Bookkeeping at the Vatican is boring. I don’t understand why the council of mafia dons (or whatever) is passing that plate of tacky jewelry around, and I cannot summon an ounce of interest in who gets the majority share in Immobiliare. The movie’s certainly hurt by the loss of Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, and many of the dramatic moments are plain goofy. Machine-gunning a suite from a helicopter, in full view of Atlantic City, is a goofy way to kill people; Joey Zasa is a goofy name for a mobster. Poisoned cannoli is goofy, even if it is symbolically coherent (food preparation is a womanly task, so Connie uses the cannoli as the gun, oh ho ho!). But if you strip all that away, I think you get a movie that’s not necessarily equal to the first two installments, but is its own weird kind of masterpiece. Yes, I’m talking about the cousincest.

It’s so taboo and swoon-y and upsetting and great. Andy Garcia is the meanest, baddest, Sicilianiest, most devilish, hurtest, sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. And before you accuse me of perversion, remember that art is abstraction. An explosion on the news is a tragedy. But it’s fun in a movie because it’s not real. We can enjoy the excitement without living with the consequences. Why do you think horror exists? Suspension of disbelief does not equal endorsement. Andy Garcia and Sofia Coppola are not related, so hush. I love a love story, even if it’s twisted. Vinny wants into the family by any means necessary, I get that, but still. “He’s your first cousin,” “So I’ll love him first” is dynamite dialogue. Mary very nearly physically throws herself at the object of her desire. That Elvis Costello song they make out to rocks. Oh, the fics this would inspire if it were released today.

I love a love story, even if it’s twisted. Vinny wants into the family by any means necessary, I get that, but still. “He’s your first cousin,” “So I’ll love him first” is dynamite dialogue.

(Side note: When TG3 hit theaters, a main point of contention was Sofia Coppola’s sneery, wooden performance as Mary Corleone, her casting highlighted as an instance of nepotism over talent. But from what I’ve read, the younger Coppola was essentially doing her dad a favor by stepping into the role after Winona Ryder dropped out. And was it a farce to think that the privileged daughter of a powerful, successful Italian-American man could realistically portray the privileged daughter of a powerful, successful Italian-American man? Sometimes rich girls really are sneery and wooden. She doesn’t have the range of Diane Keaton or Talia Shire, but thankfully this movie grants both of those women plenty of screen time—justice for Connie Corleone!—so Sofia only needs to do a little, and she does it well enough. It doesn’t bother me at all.)

So, I kept a little place in my heart for the much pooh-poohed third Godfather movie, intending to cheekily defend it in this month’s column just for fun. Then I saw that there’s actually a critical prompt about this movie being offered, right now, by Coppola himself: a re-release, re-mastered, re-cut, and re-titled. That’s the version I watched before writing this.

As Coppola notes in his introduction to the updated cut, the “new” title is actually the old title; he and author Mario Puzo had always intended to call the movie The Death of Michael Corleone—but back in 1990, the studio made them frame it as the third installment in a trilogy, rather than a “coda” to the story. It got me thinking about versions, revisions, and sequels. There’s a common complaint nowadays that a bad remake “ruins” the original, as if movie-making is akin to time-travel. It isn’t a smart take but it points to a real annoyance: What happens when Star Wars or Ghostbusters or whatever else stops meaning “this thing that was good” and starts meaning “a bunch of stuff, some of which is bad”? 

As franchises keep expanding, I wonder, does the principle work in reverse? If the Snyder Cut of Justice League turns out to be a triumph, will that render the Whedon-ized version worse by contrast, or its own collectible curio? It isn’t as simple as saying that the “original” edition of something is definitive. By that logic, Mario Puzo’s novels would be the “true” Godfathers, and I don’t think anyone wants that (unless you’re really into lengthy descriptions of Sonny Corleone’s girth, no disrespect). Like I said, all art is abstraction. For me, the “real” Godfather may be the story my dad told me. I guess I’m kind of a Mary that way.

Was it a farce to think that the privileged daughter of a powerful, successful Italian-American man could realistically portray the privileged daughter of a powerful, successful Italian-American man?

But, so, OK, you may be wondering: how is Coda? Well, it’s not super different. The opening scene is the negotiation with the bishop, and the runtime is eleven minutes shorter. The ending is the biggest shift. In the original release of Part III, we see Michael die, an orange (an orange!) slipping out of his hand. In the new version, the screen fades to black on Michael still alive, trapped in a waking death, a purgatory of pain, alone and empty, not allowed the release of physical departure. A quote appears: “When the Sicilians wish you ‘Cent’anni,’ it means ‘for long life’…and a Sicilian never forgets.” Hmm.

Coppola says in the introduction that Coda provides thematic closure to the events of Godfathers I and II, which begs the question: Aren’t the first two movies pretty thematically conclusive? Did it feel incomplete? Just when we’re out, he pulls us back in and all that, the cycle of violence never ends. But does the movie justify its existence? I’m torn. As I said before, it’s the “new” stuff I find the most compelling, the next generation, not the musings on the eternal hope of the traumatized Sicilians. I guess I’m back where I started. Some of it works, some of it’s strange, but you have to give a little credit to a movie that manages to work in the line “Where’s Mary? Would somebody please hail Mary?” You have to. FL

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