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Recut ‘Godfather 3’ pulls us back in again

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 14, 2021 6:33 pm

Generally, when a filmmaker decides to do a “director’s cut,” it’s to add things they hated sacrificing the first time around.

But Francis Ford Coppola’s recut of Godfather III actually trims down his 1990 concluding chapter in the trilogy even further. Cut from 162 to 158 minutes, you barely notice while watching, but somehow, The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone feels lighter, like it’s been to the gym lately, or switched to a plant-based diet.

Panned by many critics when it came out in 1990, Coppola’s Godfather conclusion actually gains watchability by subtracting some unnecessary padding. It’s a clear case of less is more.

The opening no longer harkens to the deep past in its establishing shot — instead of the detritus of abandoned Lake Tahoe, the bad memories of Fredo Corleone saying a “Hail Mary” just before sleeping with the fishes, the mournful Roman Coppola score hitting its tragic notes too early, it instead opens with a voiceover from an archbishop, requesting a favor from Don Corleone (Al Pacino) — an echo of 1972’s The Godfather opening scene.

All in the family: the filmic template of dysfunctional families that launched 1,000 reality TV series. Photo: Paramount Pictures

This frames the moral struggle much quicker: Michael has long sought to become “legit,” to wipe away the sins of not only his father but of his own hand, as head of the Corleone family. Will paying off the Catholic Church’s huge debt help him get there?

Here, director Coppola shuffles things a bit: the device of Michael reciting a letter to his children Anthony (Michael D’Ambrosio) and Mary (Sofia Coppola) has been reinserted later, the ornate papal ceremony excised completely — because, why bother? Cut to the chase. Cut, cut, cut.

We know Michael seeks credibility from on high — it’s been a through-line since Godfather II, using senators and government officials to buy legitimacy (or, if necessary, blackmail them into submission). Here, Don Corleone wants absolution from the Vatican itself.

So we head straight to a New York ceremony where the Corleone family donates $600 million to the Church. It also introduces all the main players in one extended family sequence.

But some things are impossible to cut. Sofia Coppola — a replacement for Winona Ryder, who quit at the time — was lambasted for her amateurish performance as the love interest of Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia), the hotheaded but loyal bastard son of Michael. Sadly, that verdict still stands. As lovely as she is to look at, her take on Mary lacks any depth or experience.

It’s hard not to invest a line like “Did my father kill his own brother?” with any discernible emotion, but Sofia somehow manages. Her woodenness still distracts. Even her hand, shown rolling gnocchi while intertwined with Vincent’s, acts woodenly.

But the overall arc of Godfather III is tighter, the action and three-part structure highlighted now by surgical cuts. What comes forward is a little clearer in retrospect.

Al Pacino (with Diane Keaton) still shines as Michael Corleone. Photo: Paramount Pictures

The estranged relationship between Michael and Kay (Diane Keaton) has more depth, especially in Sicily where, despite his diabetes and failing health, Michael tries to charm her again. She’s too smart to fall for it, but it says something about the endurance of past relationships, even when people go their separate ways.

In this respect, Coppola’s instincts about maturity and perspective have aged like fine wine. It helps that Keaton and Pacino still have strong chemistry; their dialogue reads like an older, wiser couple, comfortable with one another’s wariness. (Kay: “I’m still here. Even with our bad history.” Michael: ”Yes, you are, but with dread.”)

Talia Shire and character actor Eli Wallach had their roles cut a bit here — we don’t see Connie Corleone put out the hit on the archbishop, and there’s less of Wallach’s subtle treachery as Don Altobello — but we already can see that Connie has become quite a dark figure (literally, draped in black), like some Avenging Death Angel.

There was a shift in Coppola’s tone by the ‘90s. Through the 1980s, he’d taken on visionary flops like The Cotton Club and One from the Heart, and had his artistic S.E. Hinton period (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish).

By the time of Godfather III, he’d entered an operatic phase — a tendency toward excess and Grand Guignol that shows in the final murder montage here, and later in 1992’s Dracula.

Panned by many critics when it came out in 1990, Coppola’s Godfather conclusion actually gains watchability by subtracting some unnecessary padding. It’s a clear case of less is more.

By 1990, there’s something a bit over-the-top in Pacino’s barking (“Every time I think I’m out… they keep pulling me back in!”) and Lear-like declarations after he suffers a diabetic stroke in his kitchen, but the actor redeems himself — literally, and figuratively — in a superb garden confession scene with Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone).

This scene is both beautifully shot (in Sicily) and written; we see Michael and the future pope in single silhouette takes, shot through vines, literally amidst a thicket of moral entanglements. We see it from afar, as a voyeur.

The two men do not look at one another. Then we see it as a split screen, separated by a hedge, as though in a confession booth, a divide separating Heaven from Hell. The framing makes Pacino’s anguish real, recalling how he ordered the death of his brother Fredo, a sin for which there is no redemption. (“Your sins are terrible,” the cardinal remarks matter-of-factly, yet shrugs and gives absolution anyway, going through the motions.) This scene alone makes Godfather III worth a second view.

The final set piece of Godfather III is literally an opera, one that ends in tragedy, but first there’s a murder montage meant to equal, if not rival, those of the preceding two movies. The gore here is not far away from the style of a Dario Argento movie, but Coppola also inserts a bit of comedy, with Connie spying on Don Altobello with opera glasses, as he shoves down one last poisonous cannoli.

These are the moments that remind you of what a lively director Coppola was at his best — full of winks and nods, as well as violence and compassion. And thankfully, his daughter Sofia has emerged into a director who’s not only daring and adventurous, but has learned to get the most from her actors.

There’s not much else different about The Godfather Coda, which ends, not with Michael Corleone’s death, but in a kind of Purgatory exile: slowly contemplating eternity while sitting in a sunny Sicilian garden, slipping on his dark sunglasses one last time. 

Earlier, Michael had remarked to Connie: “The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. Where the hell does it end?” You’re definitely getting warm, Michael.

Banner and thumbnail caption: Al Pacino (with Andy Garcia) in The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.