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“Just when I thought I was out; they pull me back in.” It’s arguably (and astonishingly) the most famous line from the entire Godfather story and it is uniquely apropos for Francis Ford Coppolla’s re-edit of The Godfather: Part III.
Is this reimagined version of the final Godfather chapter worth your time? Yes. Is it vastly different from the original version that was released into theaters in 1990? Well, that’s a more complicated question.
Either way, the new edit is a superior iteration than it’s original counterpart and after years of being out on The Godfather: Part III, I am in on (deep breath in) Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone – wow, that’s a mouthful.
A little back story on my experience with The Godfather trilogy before we get into the full review of Coda – I am currently 37 and I grew up in a household where my father loved and constantly revisited The Godfather films. My sisters and I were raised knowing all the sayings, and actually repurposed them in real life — in particular, “never hang your dirty laundry in public.” That was a big one.
So you could imagine that when The Godfather: Part III was released in ’90, my two sisters, my mom, my dad, and my seven year old self all piled into our Jeep Wagoneer and journeyed to see the conclusion of the Corleone saga.
Because of this family trip (which was a sequel to the first experience I ever had at a theater: going to see Goodfellas the same year) I have an odd affinity for The Godfather: Part III.
I’ve always enjoyed the final chapter, but my enjoyment is certainly separate from my rational understanding that the Godfather III is not a great film. By the way, neither is (deep breath in) Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone. In fact you could probably make an argument that the biggest change between the films is the title itself because not much else changes.
Coppolla does re-edit the beginning and the ending of the film. There is no denying those are significant alterations to the overall flow and efficiency of the story. Instead of opening up on the abandoned house in Nevada (which was a specific tie to The Godfather II), we jump right into business with the Archbishop asking Michael to give money to the church because of a shortfall of cash from the Archbishop’s trust in the wrong people. There’s no wishy washy beginning, no reintroduction to the characters, no wasted time. Instead of building to this plot riddled moment and bogging down the film half way through, which is what this scene does in the original iteration, we meet the significant players and are fully aware of the plot the instant the movie starts.
Switching the start of the film allows the characters to breath, informs the rest of the movie of what the ultimate goal is, and how the decision to go “legitimate” motivates Michael while his nefarious past keeps sucking him back into it’s orbit. Unlike the first go round, instead of seeing Michael trying to buy his way out of the mortal sin of killing his brother, we see a man trying to legitimately make his business more above board for the sake of his children and their children’s children.
There are some other minor scenes from the original that were cut — totaling about 5 minutes. But these cuts are nothing that would significantly alter the plot or the general through-line of the film. Whether it’s Michael’s “knighting ceremony” (which was supposed to mirror the baptism scene from the first film) or Michael dealing with Don Altobello and the memories from his past life, these are scenes that add texture but are ultimately superfluous to the experience.
My ultimate surprise is how the film ends and how it supports the name change of the film.
In 1990, Coppolla chose an almost darkly comedic ending for Michael, dying alone holding an orange at Don Tommasino’s villa in Sicily. Meant to mirror, if not directly comment on Vito Corleone’s fate, Michael falls from his chair with nothing left but a little rat dog sniffing around his corpse. While fitting for someone whose immense rise to power came with such a cost, it affords Michael the comfort of death. In the new version, we part on the same scene but we are not privy to his death. In fact, the scene fades to black before there’s even a hint of death. Michael simply puts his glasses on, we fade to black and the film ends with a parting card that I’m not sure entirely lands the way it’s intended:
‘When the Sicilians wish you ‘Cent’anni’, it means ‘for long life’…and a Sicilian never forgets.’”
Naturally we are lead to believe that Michael is left with nothing but his loneliness for the rest of his long life after the fade to black. Another minor change that suits the trimmed ending is instead of flashing to all the women he’s danced with his entire life (Apollonia, Kay, and his daughter Mary) we only flash to his dance with Mary — the great loss of his life. It’s an emotional change that focuses directly on this film as opposed to looking back to the previous films for dramatic weight.
Wait a second – this film is titled (deep breath in) Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone, right? How can Michael not die? Well, he does – not just physically. His emotions are dead. His world is dead. His soul is dead. Despite claiming that he has tried to go “legitimate” for his family and to protect them from all the horrors the world offers, we see a lonely man with nothing but guilt, sin, and the bill coming due on a life he ultimately forged for himself. His family is either dead because of him, or they have abandoned him – which is a fitting end for a man who murdered his “mother’s son”.
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But that final card still weighs heavily on me as a viewer.
Are we supposed to understand the feeling of long life Coppolla wants to instill in us without the card? At no point does this quote ever come up in the film, or even in the series as a whole. It’s just there at the end because the director is telling us what we’re supposed to feel. It’s not wrong per say, but it feels pedestrian for a director like Coppolla and his exquisite attention to detail.
That attention to detail, however, is really what gives birth to the overly long title for this film and it’s a good change — which is why this film ultimately works for me. Instead of looking at The Godfather: Part III as the continuation of Michael Corleone’s story from the first two parts, the term “Coda” sets this story apart from the first two films. Yes, I know we’re dealing semantics here, but the principle of the third film is fundamentally altered with the title change. “Coda” as defined by Merriam-Webster is:
1a: a concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structureb: a concluding part of a literary or dramatic work2: something that serves to round out, conclude, or summarize and usually has its own interest
The second definition is the part that concerns this film. The problem with The Godfather: Part III is that it never felt like the same story. Whether that is to do with the gap in time between the first two and the third, or the church aspect of it all (the first two films were never overtly religious in any way except Fredo reciting the “Hail Mary” before #SPOILERS he gets killed.) The direction felt like The Godfather, the score sounded like The Godfather, and many of the actors returned from the first Godfather films but the movie seemed so distant from the first two. Changing the title, and streamlining the film helps codify many of the themes from the first two films but it also evolves Coda into it’s own experience that exists outside of it’s predecessors which are largely considered to be number one and number two of the greatest films ever made.
Title changes, re editing of scenes, and even a beautiful remastering of the film do not paper over the cracks that fault the final chapter of The Godfather.
Outside of the changes mentioned above, the film is largely untouched.
Sofia Coppolla as Mary (despite her being put in an impossible situation to fill in for Winona Ryder who was originally cast as Mary but dropped out due to illness right before shooting) is still a disaster. The love story between Vincent and Mary is still icky at best, and Vincent inexplicably transforms from being the hot headed progeny of Sonny Corleone to level headed all knowing Don in a matter of one scene. The final shot of Talia Shire draping her head with the black veil is still way too on the nose, and we barely get a sense of any of the characters outside of the Corleone group or how the unnecessarily complicated plot with Immobiliarie actually works.
As such, the movie is still overly long and this recent viewing illuminates a facet of the film that I never paid close attention to originally – it feels like a series of vignettes cobbled together to make a larger film project. It was as if Puzo and Coppolla didn’t know how to transition from scene to scene properly with the spine of continuity they used in the first two films – but they had a bunch of scenes they thought would work well if they could manage to utilize as many fade-to-black transitions as possible.
These issues plagued the first film, and still continue, and so to do the strengths of the film also continue to prop it up. Whether it is Andy Garcia as Vincent (biting his knuckle in frustration like his dad in the first film) or the cat and mouse game when Zasa’s hoods come to kill him at his apartment, the helicopter attack, some immaculate direction in the final opera scene, the forgiveness scene between Michael and Kay, Michael’s confession, or my personal favorite “never give an order like that when I’m alive – I command this family. It was not what I WANTED“, there are some really masterful aspects of The Godfather: Part III that continue to live on in Coda and are only amplified because Coda’s refocused efforts.
In the end, is this film worth it? Again, yes. If you love The Godfather you should definitely revisit the world.
If you hated the third film, well, you’ll probably still hate this film. There are some issues that simply cannot be fixed without breaking the movie. But it’s worth revisiting to experience a better understanding of what the director truly wanted as the final destination for his first two masterpiece films. I suppose, though, that’s the real issue – the first two films tell a complete story. There was no need for a third except because the studio wanted to dip back into the world.
I know there was no need for a third film because Part II and Coda end the same way – a close up on a solemn Michael whose rich in wealth and power, but alone and somber because no is there to love him the way he needs. Instead of being killed by Hyman Roth’s guys in the second film, or by Altobello’s assassin in the third film, Michael continues to live – haunted by everything he’s done.
Is it better than The Godfather: Part III? Yes. And no. It’s just different, and I think I like the different more.
What do you think? Wait, nevermind, “never tell anyone what you’re thinking.”