Maybe Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films really are “our” epic, the ultimate expression of America’s spiritual decline, through its crime-family metaphor — the obsession with advancing fortune and achieving power. More than a gangster saga, the Corleone-family story concentrated the national dream in tribalism, then depicted its eventual betrayal and self-destruction. The cynical view of American history is rooted in European immigrant history — from the Borgias to modern parallels with the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, Bidens, etc. “Politics and crime, they’re the same thing,” Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) says in The Godfather, Part III — this time lower in the sound mix as if to make it subtle, but it was always more than fans of this violent-romantic gangster series par excellence could take.
Part of the great problem of The Godfather’s popularity is that it inured us to corruption. Now, the line “Treachery is everywhere” (spoken by Michael’s arch enemy) has unexpected contemporary relevance.
Coppola’s restructuring of The Godfather, Part III on its 30th anniversary (retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone) should have been timely enough to rescue COVID-era film culture, but given recent comic-book-movie dumbing-down and the narrative depletion of TV-bingeing, it comes too late. The rich complexity of Coppola’s vision was never fully appreciated — not even by Coppola himself, who has altered it to fit contemporary negativity. The new disfigured opening sequence shows Michael being told, “In today’s world, it seems the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness.” This changes emphasis from the original opening, which recaptured the powerful moodiness of the first two films, and now makes Michael’s hopelessness TV-obvious.
The original opening scene at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral crucially established Michael’s hypocrisy and guilt. It flashed back to the two most shocking things we ever saw in the movies: Michael’s hypocritical baptism/massacre montage (“Do you renounce Satan and all his works?”) and his fratricide of Fredo. Fredo’s death resonates, pulsing throughout Part III’s narrative. Michael cannot escape the guilt or the corruption; it even infects the Vatican, where Michael attempts a financial deal to help legitimize his family’s standing.
In Part III, Coppola finally acknowledged this hypocrisy (and his own personal complicity) through several scenes that essentially set Michael’s confession. This moral reckoning equates the saga to Greek tragedy. It is dramatically, spiritually necessary — despite our secular culture’s efforts to reject it. (That’s why Part III is rarely exhibited, that’s why the media preferred HBO’s The Sopranos.)
Part III is the moral statement that the world waited 16 years to see. Now, The Irishman gets false praise just to show that no lesson was learned. Reviewers attributed Coppola’s theme to Scorsese. But Coppola recognizes the Godfather phenomenon as opera and relays it to us as opera. The magnificent final half-hour intercuts a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana with another horrific montage of Michael’s inescapable treachery. Coppola’s filmmaking sophistication and cinematographer Gordon Willis’s imagery reach their zenith here; it’s a postmodern, mise en abîme masterpiece.
We face the artistic legacy of ethnic corruption; that’s what Michael’s son Anthony sings about it in a Sicilian song (Nino Rota’s Godfather theme) with the lyric “My soul cries in pain. It has no peace, what a terrible night!” It shocks Michael, whose actual confession is one of the great moments in movie history. His priest explains, “The mind suffers, the body cries out.”
Marlon Brando famously explained the first Godfather film as “a critique of corporate capitalism,” but Coppola goes further. In Part III, Coppola deals with Catholicism, what Michael calls “the true faith,” which the previous installments had dodged. This personal accountability is unavoidable in the casting of his daughter Sofia as Michael’s daughter Mary, a figure of sacrifice and expiation just like the totems of fallen religious statuary and the archbishop’s plummeting corpse. For Millennial viewers, Mary’s fronting for Michael’s business dealing may also denote the tribal descent of Chelsea Clinton and Hunter Biden. Although restructured as The Godfather Coda, Part III pulls us back to cinema as art and politics so that cinema matters again.