Francis Ford Coppola's self-justifying commentary on ''III'' is essential listening, says Ty Burr
Al Pacino, The Godfather, ...

How ”Godfather” DVDs reveal a director’s ego

The latest DVD to set disc geeks and movie freaks aflame is the luscious, long-awaited five-platter set devoted to Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Godfather” series. It’s an elegant little package indeed: quietly understated on the outside, packed with outsize emotions and ambitions on the inside (kind of like a DeNiro performance). Certainly, if you’ve never seen ”The Godfather” or its sequels, rent this puppy immediately: the first film especially unfurls on DVD as a brooding sonic/visual marvel and is every bit the modern classic that its rep insists.

But even if you think you know these movies like the back of the Black Hand, this set still offers a great performance you’ve never seen before. Actually, you can’t see it now. You can only hear it, since it’s Coppola’s own filmmaker’s commentary track that accompanies ”The Godfather Part III.”

Yes, ”Part III,” the belated, much-maligned Fredo to the first two films’ Michael and Sonny. The film that stands outside the glow cast by Godfathers I and II at a remove of 15 years and countless career compromises. The film that, by focusing on the aging Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) search for moral redemption, skips the story we might actually want to see: How he decided to rejoin humanity after being one of the coldest fish in the history of the movies (this is a guy who offs his own brother, for pete’s sake).

Now, the first two films also feature a director’s commentary track from Coppola, and they’re wonderful. Nothing really new there, though, because even Coppola has been telling these tales for upwards of two decades. But the commentary that accompanies ”III” is his first real chance to set the record straight on that film, and the opportunity releases all of St. Francis’ wit, remorse, ambition, delusion, and brilliance. In the process, the listener comes to understand how completely the filmmaker came to identify with his central character — to the ruination of the film itself.

”This is not the same Michael Corleone,” Coppola says at one point. He’s right — this Michael is a completely new fictional creation that has no basis in any earlier version. This character is modeled after its creator’s view of himself: a once powerful man who has been humbled by age and the plottings of perceived enemies, and who realizes, late in the game, that family is the only thing that matters. A man who expects and even desires comeuppance. ”I felt that Michael had to be punished, had to die,” the director says, and since he keeps looping the discussion back around to his own lack of Hollywood power, is it really his younger self he wants to kill off? ”That was interesting to me because I was in a crisis,” Coppola says at one point — and he’s talking about the debates over Pacino’s hairstyle.

Don’t come to this commentary for filmmaking tips. Come expecting paranoia and warmth. And come expecting an unrepentant belief in the purity of Sofia Coppola’s performance as Mary Corleone. At least it makes sense now: If you truly saw the Corleone clan as a psychic projection of your own extended family, wouldn’t casting your own daughter as Michael’s be the final dovetailing of art and reality?

Ah, but she can’t act. No matter. To Coppola, ”It’s one of my favorite parts of the film, because she was real, she was not an actress. She was an art student, but she was Mary Corleone.” And the critical and audience response to the role? Here’s where the walls finally collapse between real and reel, and the director’s astounding self-absorption becomes manifest. ”Just as in the story, it was Sofia that they shot the bullets at, but they were really shooting them at me,” he says on the commentary. ”That is ultimately really what the film was about: that there is no worse way to pay for your sins than to have your children be included in the punishment.”

Undeniably true. But what does that say about an artist who puts his children in the line of fire?