Sunday, August 5, 2018
"It's Dangerous to be an Honest Man": The Godfather, Part III
Ok, I needed something to read recently, and fell on my old copy of Puzo's novel, and, after rereading it, wanted to see the least-loved of the films drawn from it--my memory (from seeing it in the theater when it came out) was that it was better than many thought.
The 1990 final installment of Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy was greeted with....not the rapturous reception the first two installments received. Some of this was the less than superb acting of Sophia Coppola (actually, a little better than you remember her, and a hell of a director), but, I have always thought, the main reason for the lower reputation of the final film is simple human nature: A story about decline and fall is less thrilling than one about the rise to power (Part I, and Vito's story in Part II) and its consolidation (Michael' story in Part II).
Coppola's skill as director is evident from the first moments, a long tracking shot of the now-abandoned, falling to ruin, Corleone family home in Nevada. We sweep through all the old locations, seeing their decay, a wonderful metaphor for the state of the Corleone Family itself as the movie unfolds.
Oh, not at first; Michael, back in New York City, is seemingly at the apogee of power, being invested as a Papal Knight, and is now completely legitimate in his business interests. The first long set piece, the celebration of Michael's honor brings together Michael with his fractious (and fractured) family: Kay (Diane Keaton, in a quicksilver performance, by turns spiteful, compassionate, loving, and heartbreaking), her children with Michael, Mary (Sophia Coppola) and Anthony (Franc D'Ambrsio), Connie Corleone Rizzi(Talia Shire, of whom more later), and a handful of old faces, with new ones to supplement the thinning ranks.
Kay is quite hostile to her ex, though when he agrees to let Anthony follow a musical career, she relents, a little. Michael is briefly reluctant to let his son go--but his memories of his own youth, and the knowledge that young Tony knows about Fredo's murder (the ghost haunting this Macbeth) leads Michael to give way with little fight.
But Michael's old friends at the Commission are watching enviously as he stages a financial coup--to buy a majority interest in the Vatican-backed Internazionale Immobiliare company, and they want him to let them, er, "wet their beaks a little." When he refuses, as did his father Vito in the first film, an attack, ostensibly by the thuggish Joey Zasa kills most of the Dons, but not Michael.
But you don't need plot summary--suffice it to say that Michael suffers a diabetic stroke, which leads Kay to visit him, they end of having something of a rapprochement in Sicily where Anthony is making his debut as an opera singer, but also while in Sicily, Michael discovers who has betrayed him, and, yielding power to his nephew Vincent--Sonny's child, conceived at the wedding in the first film--sets in motion one last sequence of revenge that, this time, blows back on him and his.
The standout performance, after Pacino's, is Talia Shire's as a profoundly changed Connie. Oh, she told Michael she wanted to help him in the last movie, but unlike the late lamented Tom Hagen, Connie is a wartime consiglieri. Shire's physicality in this film is impressive--her voice goes from elegantly modulated to a fishwife's when she goads Vincent to murder Joey Zasa. She is elegant, flashes of the charming bride coming through, but more often her elegance is the predatory beauty of a hawk--her dispatching of a traitor into climactic sequence sees her in both guises--for the old traitor whose favorite she was as a little girl, she is girlish--until she watches him die from the poison she has fed him. I can't think of a performance by her that matches the nuance, the breadth, of this one.
Likewise Pacino--he and Keaton fight, but, when he takes her on a tour of parts of Sicily, the innocent Michael from the first part of the first movie returns to us a little bit--he points out his love for his father, Vito's dire straits when he stepped in, and abandoned, for want of any other option, the destiny he had dreamed fro himself. The rapport between Keaton and Pacino is superb, their old compatibility flaring up, despite her now complete knowledge of the "family business." Even after she sees him get caught up in the business again--the murder of Michael's old protector Don Tommasino, she murmurs "It never ends," with a bit of disgust, only to thoroughly enjoy his company at the opera, watching their son--and murmuring happy little asides to each other.
And then the butcher's bill at last comes due.
And I think this is why this movie is less loved than the others.
Michael pays dearly for his crimes, his vaunting ambition, his hopes--founded as they all were in love for his family, he cannot believe that they are all foredoomed, but they are. We see Michael and Mary shot, her die, as Keaton screams--only to have Pacino scream at first silently, but then as full-throatedly as Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class, a death scream--but Michael does not die. We see a montage of waltzes--Michael and Mary, then with Appolonia, then with Kay--and then fade to the prosaic spectacle of a tired, defeated old man, at least a decade, maybe two, later. He dies alone, feared or forgotten, in a dusty Sicilian ruin, where his father died playing in a lush garden with his grandson.
No catharsis, no triumph. The once innocent man, who had such potential, loses everything at a stroke.
The film shows Michael no mercy, no redemption. Where he committed terrible crimes in the first two films, he keeps the audience's sympathy in the first, and even through most of the second. Here, wishing to atone, he cannot. His confession to the honest man who will soon become Pope offers a glimpse of hope, but as even the Cardinal observes, Michael does not believe he can be redeemed--and so he won't be. His dreams of better things for his family die long before the shell of a man we glimpse at the end does.
As Kay says, "It never ends."