The first question raised by The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola’s remaster/re-edit of his 1990 film The Godfather Part III, is “What’s different?” I’ll spoil that for you: Not much, apart from a change to the very last shot of the original version that is minor in its execution. Besides a reshuffling of one or two scenes, I could detect only a few significant changes from the original, and at least some were subtractive rather than additive. There’s a tad more suspense during the final few scenes in Sicily, for example, because they cut some of Eli Wallach’s skullduggery. Those looking to this edit for some grand change in the original film’s themes will come out unsure they clicked on the right rental. Those looking to risk their health to see it in any theaters exhibiting it should really, really not do that.
The second question the film raises is tied up with all of the complex reasons Part III is argued about so passionately among a certain subset of film fan: What is it about tragedy that draws us? Like horror, it is a seeming contradiction that we want to be entertained by seeing downfall and disaster. It must be a noble figure who falls—our doomed protagonist needs to be a real pezzonovante. And it must stem from their own flawed character: Lear’s pride causes him to drive away the one daughter who truly loves him. Hamlet is consumed by fear and vengeance in equal measure. Arthur bangs his sister. Real tragedy of the Shakespearean or the Arthurian variety is about inevitability.
If we want to know Michael’s cardinal sin, though, Part II already provides it. He’s been telling himself that every rotten thing he’s done has been to protect his family, but the truth is that he’s mostly been doing it for his own stubborn pride and independence. The streak of pride that drove him to enlist in the Marines out of a desire to hurt his father is the same one that drove him to cut his wife out of his life and kill his own brother. In that light, The Godfather Part III has always seemed extraneous. It even ends in much the same way the previous film in the trilogy did: With Michael alone, brooding on his own authorship of his despair.
Add to this a litany of other complaints (Sofia Coppola’s acting is not good, why could they get Lucy Mancini’s original actor back but not Robert Duvall, why weren’t all these mafiosos who have decades-long loyalties to and grudges against Michael in the first two movies, etc.), and it’s understandable why so many view this final part of Michael Corleone’s bildungsroman as inferior to the two films that came before it, which are two of the best movies in film history. I still like the finale, though no special thanks to this new version. And in a few key ways, Part III brings the story begun in The Godfather to a more gut-wrenching conclusion than even the relentlessly grim Part II.
At least one edit helps set the stakes early on, as the Coda version opens with Michael (Al Pacino), now entering old age, speaking with Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), laying bare the central scheme of the film right away: The Vatican Bank is underwater and Michael believes he can use his vast fortune as leverage to gain a controlling stake in an international real estate company that the church owns. In the process, he’ll wash his family’s filthy money clean, and finally achieve the legitimacy his father always wanted for the family.
Michael is feted and celebrated publicly, but as always it’s a thin veneer: At the same party honoring him as a generous philanthropist, he has to settle a dispute between his hot-headed nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia) and Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), the strutting mobster who has stepped into Michael’s former role as leader of the New York family. Vincent, we learn, is the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother, Sonny—the result of a dalliance we saw in one of the first scenes of the first movie.
The movie follows Michael and Vincent as the latter learns from and eventually succeeds the former, outmaneuvering treachery and assassination attempts by enemies in the criminal underworld and the equally crooked world of international high finance. As we know it must, it ends with Michael having succeeded at what he does best, which is wiping out his enemies with a coordinated campaign of meticulously planned assassinations. And, as we know it must, it ends with Michael losing everything that actually matters.
Part III was received with no small amount of vitriol, and is the lowest-rated by critics of the trilogy. It seems out of proportion to the movie’s quality, but the argument that it’s being held up against two of the best movies ever is also a double-edged defense: The movie is inseparable from its predecessors. Nearly every character who returns in this sequel is portrayed by the same actor with whom the role originated—including, again, Vincent’s mother (Jeannie Linero, who showed up in two or three scenes in the 1972 original).
And Coppola doesn’t want you to forget it, either: Some rando wheeling a cake in to Michael’s party is Enzo the baker, the poor guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time to help Michael mean-mug the assassins who were trying to rush the hospital where his father lay helpless in the first movie, and it’s the same actor, again: Gabriele Torrei. It’s impossible to watch the movie solely on its own merits. Were you to run this in a 10-hour double feature with The Godfather Epic, which presents a mighty, seven-hour chronological edit of the first two films, the experience would seem like one cohesive narrative that happens to have been filmed across 18 years. Bit players like Don Tommasino have entire arcs, their loyalties and vendettas playing out in the background of the Corleone family’s grander epic.
“In musical terms, a ‘coda’ is an epilogue, a summing up, and that is what we intended the movie to be,” Coppola says in a brief segment prior to the film, in which he also claims this new subtitle was what he and series author/co-adaptor Mario Puzo had always intended to call the film. That designation, that coda status, was a blessing and a curse for The Godfather Part III when it first came out 30 years ago, and remains that way in this cut. The film’s chief failing is not its own, but rather the fact that if it is indeed a “summing up” of the meaning of the first two movies, it’s attempting this in service of two films that already said what they had to say masterfully.
When the Sicilians wish you “Cent’anni”... it means “for long life.” ...and a Sicilian never forgets.
Here is the spoiler that may determine whether you want to give this a watch: In the original version of the film, the final scene depicts Michael in an advanced stage of decrepitude, alone in a sun-drenched courtyard in Sicily for a single moment before he pitches over dead. The Coda version of the film stops just short of that literal death to instead fade to black and offer the barbed bit of Sicilian wisdom quoted above.
So, yes: The film added the subtitle “The Death of Michael Corleone” and then cut out his on-screen death. “The Death of Michael Corleone,” this version argues, happened on the steps of the opera house when Michael cradled his slain daughter. It’s the kind of thing your Modern American Lit teacher loves and that I, in the context of having watched these movies probably a dozen times each, roll my eyes at.
Viewed on its own merits, though, the subtler ending is a clearer statement on the tragedy it’s all been building toward—but it won’t convince those who feel better leaving Michael brooding in Tahoe at the end of Part II that there is any more reason to follow him to Sicily.
Kenneth Lowe makes a bella figura, it’s true. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.