‘The Godfather Coda’ Review: Francis Ford Coppola Pulls Us Back In With a New Cut of The Controversial Sequel
The Godfather Part III under any name is easily the worst Godfather film. But that’s a bit like saying a sapphire is not as valuable as a diamond. While it’s accurate, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re both precious gems. And now The Godfather Part III — already a good and worthwhile film — has been rendered more valuable by a revision and restoration, supervised by director Francis Ford Coppola and given the new title The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.
Even that name is a bit of an acknowledgement on Coppola’s part that the film is not the equal of its predecessors. Coppola always insisted that that the true story of The Godfather concluded with Part II, and that Part III — a phrase that was forced on the picture for understandable marketing purposes over Coppola’s objections — was always intended as more of an epilogue than a full-fledged chapter in the larger saga. True to those stated intentions, Coppola’s new cut of The Godfather Coda trims roughly 20 minutes out of the film; instead of three hours it runs closer to two hours and 30 minutes, making it noticeably shorter than the earlier two entries.
Coppola made his biggest alternations to the Coda’s opening. In the original Part III cut — which is included on The Godfather Coda Blu-ray set for comparison — the film opens with shots of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) abandoned Lake Tahoe Vegas compound from The Godfather Part II, before segueing into a Pacino voiceover, as Michael writes a letter to his now grown children. He invites Mary (Sofia Coppola) and Tony (Franc D’Ambrosio) to attend a ceremony where he will receive a papal commendation. The sprawling celebration afterwards — an echo of the wedding that opens The Godfather and the First Communion party in Part II — reestablishes the Corleone family dynamics, and the main Mafia plot involving Michael’s ambitious nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia). Afterwards, Michael meets with a Vatican banker (Donal Donnelly) who needs Corleone money to repay some of his debts. In exchange, Michael demands a controlling interest in a European conglomerate. Once consummated, the deal would finalize Michael’s long-held desire to transition from mob boss to legitimate businessman.
The Godfather Coda reorders the sequence of events and removes some elements entirely. Now Michael meets the corrupt banker in the very first scene, the papal ceremony is gone, and the story picks up with the afterparty. Reordering everything sets the plot in motion earlier, and gives the whole film more momentum as it builds to its violent second act. They’re smart, effective changes. (Coppola’s cuts to the finale are much more minor.)
It’s also interesting to consider the things Coppola did not change, given the opportunity afforded to him here by Paramount. When The Godfather Part III first opened in theaters in 1990, most critics’ venom was aimed at his daughter Sofia, cast in the key role of Mary Corleone, who loves her father and becomes attracted to her cousin (her first cousin!) Vincent. The younger Coppola only got the role at the last minute, after star Winona Ryder quit the project just as shooting commenced. Still, the press still called Sofia Coppola a nepotistic choice. Francis Coppola could have turned The Godfather Coda into “The Phantom Edit” of The Godfather franchise and removed most of Mary’s scenes. He didn’t. Her arc remains fairly intact, as she draws closer to Vincent while he rises in her father’s old criminal empire.
Truth be told, Sofia Coppola, who may be her father’s equal as a director, is not a strong actress, and the movie suffers as a result. No matter the version, The Godfather Part III also sorely misses Robert Duvall, who played Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen in the first two films and then turned down his intended part in the final sequel over a pay dispute. Coppola wanted Tom to serve as a moral and emotional counterpoint to Michael; when Duvall left the project he was replaced in the family lawyer role by George Hamilton, whose B.J. became a minor character who mostly delivers exposition and serves no larger thematic role in the story.
With Tom Hagen and a different Mary, The Godfather Coda could actually rise to the level of the first two Godfather movies. Without them, it’s still a fairly good sequel, a sad story about guilt, with an endless supply of memorably dialogue from Coppola and Mario Puzo (“The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.”) and an underrated Al Pacino performance. As Michael insists to Vincent that one must never hate your enemies, Pacino keeps Michael’s obvious rage at his rivals — and his own violent nature — bubbling against the surface. (Michael’s confession late in the film is absolutely incredible.) As Vincent’s enemies in what was once the Corleone crime family take aim at the former figurehead, Coppola ramps up the bloodshed to levels that look like something out of an exploitation film — or maybe, given the operatic ambitions of The Godfather Part III’s conclusion, Grand Guignol.
The Godfather Coda’s final third, a long vacation in Sicily before an opera performance where all of the characters’ fates are sealed, lowers the temperature. Michael, recovering after a diabetic stroke and even more regretful than usual, reconnects with his ex-wife Kay (a muted, mournful Diane Keaton) while the assorted Mafia subplots swirl around him. In The Godfather Part III, these scenes previously struck me as a little flat after the drama and intensity of the gang warfare of the earlier scenes. In The Godfather Coda, they felt more appropriate — as if Coppola, like Michael, is expressing his weariness with the trappings of the gangster film. He would prefer to try other things; tender romances between older couples, multigenerational family dramas. But just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
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