The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone


The movie formerly known as The Godfather Part III (1990) has always been substantially different from its two classic predecessors. Unlike them, it is informed by the deepest pain; it asks what you do after your child dies. And it has no answer, then and now, under its new title The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. As has been his wont the last few years, director Francis Ford Coppola has tinkered with the film, moving some scenes and trimming others; it’s shorter but doesn’t feel shorter — the pacing is still a bit stiff, the dialogue often stilted. Ironically, the subtitle is not literal; Coppola fades to black on the ruined face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), sparing us his unintentionally comical literal downfall. What we see now is more like the death of Michael’s light, his soul.

I kind of miss the sad way the movie used to start — leaves blowing around the old, desolate Corleone compound. We now kick off with Michael pursuing a deal with the head of the Vatican bank, which gets us onto the narrative on-ramp faster and makes what follows — a ceremony in which Michael is awarded a papal bauble — seem like more of a sly quid-pro-quo event. Michael wants to buy respectability for himself and his family; he wants to leave a clean legacy for his children, especially his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). It was fashionable in 1990 to bash Sofia, the director’s daughter and untrained as an actress, for ruining her father’s movie. But to me she comes across as authentic, unguarded, and finally poignant. Sofia later made great strides as a director herself, but there’s no shame in what she does here.

Coppola has left two major sequences alone, to these eyes — Michael’s halting confession to a cardinal who will be the next Pope, and the climax crosscutting between various murders with Cavalleria Rusticana as its voluptuous backdrop. In the latter, Coppola drops his guilt and grief and revels in the sheer play of being a filmmaker. Vengeance, rage, sorrow, broken faith — Coppola brings it all together. The movie-movieness of it all can seem a bit much, but the Godfather films were always opera, never life. To my knowledge, Coppola never ordered his own brother killed, but he did (and still does) contend with the accidental death, in 1986, of his son Gian-Carlo. This Godfather is more personal and vulnerable than the first two; it feels like an open wound, and I’d prefer not to rub salt in it. Godfather, Coda is not perfect by any means, and doesn’t share the cool intelligence of I and II, but it’s time to stop punishing it. It is its own movie. Cosmetically it resembles the first two, but its core is jagged and despairing. 

Even Michael seems like a completely different man than the frigid, calculating chessmaster of the other films. Pacino gives him more warmth; age and illness (Michael has diabetes) have made Michael more fragile, more nakedly lunging towards the acceptance and love of his family — his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), his loyal sister Connie (Talia Shire, putting some dark steel into her line readings; “Maybe they should fear you,” Michael tells Connie in one of the film’s funnier exchanges). The unstated horror of the third film is that everyone seems to know how Fredo died and is more or less all right with it — even Connie keeps up the pretense that Fredo drowned so that Michael can pretend Connie doesn’t know. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business. But Godfather, Coda is strictly personal. It’s about how you live with being a monster — a monster whose very existence imperils the innocence that manages to flower around you.

Coppola hasn’t fixed some of the stuff that still makes me cringe. Joe Mantegna has been terrific elsewhere, but as media darling Joey Zasa, a crude gangster who styles himself a dapper don, he’s pretty awful (to be fair, he gets handed the worst lines: “If anyone would say such a thing, they would not be a friend. They would be a dog”). The ease with which Zasa goes out of the film proves he adds little to it; Michael’s real adversary is elsewhere. Coppola has taken out some of Michael’s coffinside mourning for his father’s old friend Don Tommasino, whose presence in the first two films never struck me as large enough to justify stopping the film to note his passing. (In Godfather I he let Michael stay with his uncle in Sicily; in II he helped Vito get revenge on an ancient enemy.) Originally Michael wondered aloud why people loved Tommasino but fear Michael; now he just promises to be good, and we lose some of the spidery, dread-filled score that accompanied most of his monologue. 

Kay points out that, now that Michael is fixated on redemption, he’s more dangerous than ever — more desperate. He leaves the family in the hands of his illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), a hothead who, from what we see, doesn’t have the screen time to develop into a plausible new Don Corleone. Some critics took that as a flaw, but I suspect it’s intentional. Michael is so hung up on retiring from ordering hits on people that he’ll hand everything off to a violent mook. Garcia has flash and presence to burn, but as Vincent is supposed to mature, Garcia is left with less to work with. It’s not his movie, anyway, and it never becomes his movie. Godfather, Coda stays with Michael’s emptiness, which he attempts to fill with family and religion, apparently unaware he has irrevocably blasphemed against both. This third movie doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t have guessed from the end of Part II, but as a coda, now, it emphasizes that Michael was damned the minute he came out of that restaurant bathroom with the stashed gun. 

Explore posts in the same categories: drama, sequel, underrated

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