At the beginning of The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), now an aging don bent on respectability (as opposed to respect), heads up an afternoon charity function and announces his contribution of $100 million to a fund for the preservation of Sicily. The telltale sum is at once generous and obscene: Anyone who can afford to give this much is clearly not to be trusted. Yet Michael, in his way, is on the level. Having purged the Corleones of all their gambling operations, he’s now intent on converting the family assets into a legitimate business enterprise. It’s not so much that Michael has gone soft as that he’s tired. Even monsters need to sleep.

Here, as in the first Godfather, we watch the Corleone family celebrating its prosperity, its bonds, the romance of family itself. The year is 1979, and Michael, no longer married, dances ceremoniously with his daughter (Sofia Coppola), a teenage flirt who looks more Old World Italian than he does. The scene is almost heartbreaking in its evocation of the wedding ceremony that opened the first Godfather. Even the Sinatra-like crooner Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) is on hand. He’s middle-aged now, and pretty much taken for granted, though watching him run through his golden-throated shtick, one can’t help but recall what had to happen — remember that severed horse’s head? — in order for him to hold on to his career.

From its opening scenes, The Godfather Part III has a curious and yearning aura of atonement. Michael is desperate to make up for his sins, and so is Francis Ford Coppola, who has spent the better part of two decades straining to live up to the achievement of the first two Godfathers — perhaps the greatest fusion of artistry and popular success in the history of American movies. When Coppola signed on to direct Godfather III, he wasn’t simply agreeing to carry on the saga of the Corleones, the Italian-American family who made organized crime seem at once horrifying and weirdly romantic. He was agreeing to revive the kind of richly detailed classical storytelling that has all but disappeared from the American cinema.

The miracle is that he pulls it off. The Godfather Part III isn’t the overpoweringly great movie the first Godfather was (let’s be reasonable — how could it have been?), and it lacks the bone-chilling gradations of darkness that made The Godfather Part II a singular American tragedy. This one is slower, talkier, and more prosaic: two hours of exposition and 40 minutes of payoff. What’s more, its narrative seams sometimes show. Yet by the end, the movie has attained a deep-grained emotional grandeur that can hold its own with that of the other two films. For the first time since Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola has recovered the gift of epic storytelling. Watching this flawed, spellbinding, end-of-a-dynasty epic, I realized that the folly of Coppola’s career during the past decade — in films like One From the Heart, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream — is that he willed himself into becoming a fantasist. The Godfather Part III marks his triumphant return to operatic realism. The film revives Coppola’s career even as it brings Michael Corleone’s to a fittingly stark finale.

Attempting to preserve and extend his empire, Michael enters into a shady corporate deal with the Vatican, negotiating with an amusingly cynical and worldly archbishop (Donal Donnelly) who drops bottom-line figures between puffs on his cigarette. It seems that the Vatican bank is in debt and could use a fast $600 million. If Michael provides it, he can take over Immobiliare, a world-wide real-estate company of which the Vatican owns a quarter share. But the plan is too good to be true. Standing in its way is a loose conspiracy of interests extending from a John Gotti-like celebrity gangster (Joe Mantegna) to one of Michael’s most trusted cronies.

What’s defeating Michael isn’t merely a few greedy rivals but the Mafia’s eternal cycle of violence: Michael wants out, and it can’t be done. Not helping matters is the emergence of Vincent (Andy Garcia), a fearless young punk stud who’s the illegitimate son of Michael’s late brother Sonny. Vincent is eager to join the family, and Michael, in part because his own son has rejected his criminal ways, agrees to take him on. Yet right from the start, it’s clear that this grinning shark in his black-leather sports jacket lacks the discipline — the respect for his elders — required to rise in the mob. He’s of the new, nihilistic generation: The Last Corleone.

The story moves to Sicily and stays there, becoming a heady thicket of political intrigue and double crosses. Coppola and coscreenwriter Mario Puzo have concocted a densely packed narrative that builds very slowly. The movie, however, is more than the sum of its mazelike convolutions. For Coppola is telling a story of emotional incest: He shows us a family strangled by its own blood ties. Vincent falls into a queasily intense romantic involvement with his first cousin — Michael’s daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola). Meanwhile, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael’s sister, has become, in effect, his surrogate wife, a shadowy schemer who hatches assassination plots when her brother hasn’t the will. It’s the collective pull of these two — the daughter and the sister — that draws Michael back into the fray.

Andy Garcia is as magnetic as ever, yet Vincent has been made into a standard post-De Niro hothead. And so there’s no way he can become as resonant a central character as this series demands. Coppola would have done well to make him a little smarter, take him back to the U.S., and enmesh him in a booby-trapped gangster melodrama, something to offset the more meditative goings-on in Sicily.

Yet what Coppola has given us is, in its own way, richly satisfying. Pacino creates a towering portrait of a man torn between his dreams and his guilt. Michael longs for redemption yet ends up losing everything he ever cared about. He has an impromptu confession scene that is at once searing and tender, and Coppola and Puzo, borrowing liberally from headlines about the Vatican scandals of the late ’70s, add a brilliantly blasphemous zinger by having his father confessor turn out to be the cardinal who is later chosen as the new pope. Talia Shire, who has never been that interesting an actress, gives the performance of her life, playing Connie with the dark stealth of a Mafia Lady Macbeth. And Eli Wallach is superb as an aging don whose grandfatherly kindliness is revealed to be a mask of treachery. As for Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter, Sofia, she’s obviously a nonactress, yet her Valley Girl nonchalance is apparently just what the director wanted. Coppola is saying that in a mass-culture age, even the daughter of a titan is as much a product of the world around her as she is of her family.

The movie culminates in a brilliant 30-minute-long set piece, with Coppola cutting between several related assassinations and the opera that most of the instigators are attending. It’s one of the most complexly layered suspense scenes ever filmed, a kind of slow-motion Hitchcockian roller coaster. The weapons range from guns to poisoned cannoli, and one of the assassinations — a kamikaze attack on a mob boss — is more hauntingly horrific than anything in the first two Godfathers. With this sequence, Coppola unveils a vision of corruption that embraces the entire world. Yet he’s also reveling in sheer theatrical magic in a way that only a master can. The entire sequence — indeed, the very movie we’ve been watching — becomes pure opera, as Coppola rediscovers his voice. A

The Godfather Part III
  • Movie
  • 169 minutes