Just when you thought you were out … he pulls you back in. Francis Ford Coppola has presided over different editorial remixes of Apocalypse Now, and now he’s done the same with his little-loved The Godfather Part III from 1990: with new edits and a new title. He and co-writer Mario Puzo have removed the “threequel” stigma by renaming it The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, but, at 158 minutes (compared with the 175 and 202 minutes of the other two films), it’s hardly short enough to be a coda and doesn’t function structurally as a coda in any way. Rightly or wrongly, it is exactly what the original title declared it to be: part three, the third act in the life of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who in his 60s tries to go into respectable business by bailing out the Vatican’s financially embarrassed bank. He thereby becomes a businessman of enormous power, somewhere between Faustus and Mephistopheles, yet also a vulnerable target for shadowy conspirators.
There are a number of little changes to the original film, the most important being one at the very end, which might baffle those wondering about that new title: The Death of Michael Corleone. This change could imply that his real death was the emotional or spiritual death that happened on the steps of the opera house in Palermo, or even much earlier than that.
Michael is drawn back into mob violence ostensibly because he gets involved in a quarrel between Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) the boorish boss of the casino he sold off and his nephew Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia), son of the late Sonny, played in G1 by James Caan. Naturally, Michael sides with Vincent, with awful results. But it isn’t just this. Michael realises that the supposedly legitimate world of business and politics he’s been yearning for all his life is just as brutal as the mob, and Michael comes to play a key role in cheekily fictionalised versions of two real events: the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I and the 1982 murder of the Vatican-connected banker Roberto Calvi.
This film was derided at the time as a shark-jumping mess: choppy, convoluted, anti-climactic with an underwhelming performance from the director’s daughter Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter Mary. It undoubtedly feels stuffy compared with Scorsese’s GoodFellas, which came out the same year and was much more vibrant, compared to Coppola’s rather stately and self-consciously Shakespearian tale. (Amusingly, Scorsese’s mother Catherine had a cameo in both films.)
Well, some critical revisionism is in order. Admittedly, many scenes in this film are obvious retreads of key scenes from the first: the initial party set piece, in which Michael receives visitors in his sanctum, and also the final sequence, in which cold-blooded hits are intercut with a public display. But they are intended as “mirroring” events, full of irony and ill omen. This film has ambition and reach: maybe the conspiracy-theory stuff from the real world feels forced, but it gives a kind of surreal vividness to Michael Corleone’s endgame. Michael’s audacious “confession” scene with the cardinal later to become Pope John Paul I is outrageous in a way, but also melodramatically inspired.
And Sofia Coppola isn’t as bad as all that. She brings a mopey callow yearning, as well as unresolved sexual tension to her forbidden love affair with her cousin Vincent. (And of course has proved herself as a director many times over since then.) I’m not sure how much, if anything, Coppola’s re-edit does for the third Godfather film, but it’s worth a watch.
• The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is in cinemas on 5 and 6 December and available on digital platforms from 8 December.