Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why doesn't The Godfather: Part III work?

There is little debate that The Godfather: Part III (1990) is not of equal stature with its predecessors, and many contend that it is not worthy to be considered part of a trilogy, but merely a commercially-drive appendage to a brilliant diptych consisting of the first film and Part II. But looking at it again for the first time in 20 years, it would have been considered a pretty fine film if it had not borne the same name as two undisputed classics.

The conception is fine, and a logical complement to what has gone before, especially when one considers Coppola's original intended title, The Death of Michael Corleone. The film concerns Michael's desire to atone and bring peace to his life. He is trying to shift his business into legitimate pursuits and reconcile with his family, and particularly to make peace with his ex-wife, Kay. To that end, he bestows his blessing on his son's career choice as an opera singer, although he considers it odd and risky. That thread pays off beautifully with the final sequence being intercut with a performance of Cavelleria Rusticana, which not only provides an internal counterpoint with its Sicilian-set story of betrayal and vendetta, but an outer echo with the baptism scene which concluded The Godfather.

What works less well is the idea of moving up via using connections through the Vatican Bank. Clearly the notion was that Michael moves away from organized crime in the higher reaches of finance, and find they have the same morality and modus operandi as the Mob. And it was logical that Michael would have such connections, plus Puzo and Coppola had some real-life scandals connected to the Vatican to base the story on, just as the first two films echoed real-life legends and events.

Problem is--who cares about the Vatican bank? They're all foreign and mysterious and weird and they don't seem respectable to Americans under the best of circumstances. So the whole "Credit Immobilier" plot seemed confusing, murky and pointless. Now that we are all a little smarter about international finance and credit, it makes a little more sense, but it still has no emotional impact. European businessmen are corrupt? Pass me another Cinzano.

Of course--there's the problem. At what institution would we be shocked to find corruption? Cynicism, borne of real events, has drowned our capacity to be shocked.

The most common criticism of Part III is the casting and the acting of Sofia Coppola. Actually Francis Coppola puts his finger on the problem in his commentary track--it's her flat California accent. Young people in California seem to speak with no resonance and their vowels spread and adenoidal. Sofia's face, however, is perfect. Beautiful, but flawed in that mysterious Mediterranean way. If she had cultivated a deeper tone and covered her vowels, she might have pulled it off. As it is, her scenes with Andy Garcia (as contrasted with those with Pacino) are really very good, leading one to wonder if Garcia did not pull her aside on his own and rehearse scenes with her. She is remarkably more at ease and fluid with Garcia than anywhere else in the film.

And of course, the finale is perfect. Coppola credits Murch with removing the sound of Pacino's scream from the soundtrack, and there should be a special Oscar just for that. In fact, the restoration of production sound seems like a mistake. Pacino's actual scream is much smaller, more specific to a person from a particular place, and thus loses the power of the silent scream, which is the scream of all fathers everywhere in the world that ever lost a beloved daughter. For a moment the universality and expressive power of the silent film is rediscovered and celebrated, and I for one regret the clunky return to earth that follows.

Was the final shot of Michael dying (and dropping the obligatory orange) put in to try and dissuade Paramount from making any more Godfather movies? How much you want to bet that they make a deal for the next one on the trip back from Coppola's funeral?

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