Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Incuriosity has kept me from watching The Godfather Part III for many years, mainly on account of the negative reviews that prevailed upon its initial release. The consensus is that it is a blight on the pristine memory of the first two films. I suspected this to be a harsh assessment, and I thought that surely there must be lurking in the third film at least some of the residue of the genius that gave us the first two instalments. On Sunday night I finally saw the film and my only articulable reaction is, how did they make it so unbelievably bad?
The film is abhorrent as well as abberrent, not only because Coppola, though he was already in decline as a director, had not yet stooped this low (or at least not since his long-forgotten early days as director of Dementia 13 and Finian's Rainbow), but also because the personnel had barely changed from those that appeared in the first two films (apart, of course, from the actors whose characters had been killed). The producer, director and writers are still the same (Mario Puzo once again with Coppola); Pacino, Keaton, Talia Shire are still there as the surviving Corleone members; Dean Tavoularis is once again the set designer; Gordon Willis still the photographer, though his flat slipshod work is unrecognisable from the first two films; only the music is different, Carmine Coppola having taken over from the late Nino Rota, though Rota's famous theme still features prominently. Yet the film is an appallingly bad apotheosis of the tale; it is as if it has become caught up in the automatic self-referentiality and parody that was already beginning to pervade mob movies. The Catholic Church and the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I move centre-scene in this film, to underline crudely the references to the Borgias that needed only remain implicit in the two previous films (we see posioning from Shire's now hysterical and pathetic attempt at a Latinate Lady Macbeth and Pacino shouts out the name of the fondly remembered Florentine family at one point just in case none of us get it).
A foretaste of the film's unbridled vulgarity is offered in the opening five minutes where a double-exposure flash-back to the murder of his brother Fredo is grafted onto a scene where Pacino receives a papal medal for his charity work. Already we are being spoonfed the drama. I cannot remember what the general quality of Hollywood films was in 1990, when the film was released, but watching this provides persuasive evidence for the respect for the audience's intelligence having taken a sharp dive since 1975. The vulgarity mounts in the smallest details, noticeable simply because they would have not existed in the earlier films: such as the scene where Pope John Paul I is elected, the very conclave itself has to be represented just in case it does not register.
The film nowadays is best known for the catastrophic start it provided for the acting career of Sophia Coppola, who has since partially redeemed herself since with one and a half decent films she has directed. In fact that is what people talk about all the time when they mention the film. This is unfair because, though Sophia is a terrible actor, with no conception of space, timing, emotion or depth, she is no worse than anybody else in the film. Pacino's wearisome late-career voice-raising has by now arrived in the post and his efforts to redeem his character through guilt-induced Catholicism are about as convincing as the threat embodied by Andy Garcia's successor-to-the-throne Vincenzo - Garcia was later to be a lot scarier in Ocean's 11. We have already mentioned Talia Shire's nepotism-blowing turn, and the grand guignol villainy of the supporting cast completes the nonsensical picture. There is pleasure though to be had from the performance of Dónal Donnelly as the venal archbishop Gilday, if only because his own brother was a real-life auxiliary bishop of Dublin at the time the film was made.
As noted above the nepotism of the Coppola clan was mercilessly pilloried after this film, though Coppola the director is to be damned less for his casting of his own daughter than for his attempt to assume the role of Don by having her play the role of Michael Corleone's daughter. When she gets dispatched in a horrendously badly-directed finale, set to the strains of Mascagnani's Cavarelia Rusticana (a piece whose movie-life had by now belonged forever to Raging Bull), my instinctive reaction was to laugh, as much at Francis as at the hapless Sophia. I can't see why, but I think my reaction probably would have been the same had Winona Ryder filled the role, as originally planned.
Coppola has never made a halfway decent film since before this one; no amount of academic analysis or commercial repackaging of the 'trilogy' or the 'saga' can rescue The Godfather Part III from being the sack of shite it is.