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Credit: Paramount


Listen Up... 'The Godfather Part III' is better than you remember

With apologies to Robert De Niro, but if the only thing left from The Godfather trilogy was Al Pacino’s public atonement for a life spent in sin and the forgiveness offered to him by a complete stranger, it would still be one of the greatest performances in cinema history.

Pacino, the antithesis to De Niro’s calculated approach to script analysis, imbued Michael Corleone with an animation that stemmed from reacting to the importance of the moment in question. Left to carry the feature virtually alone, Pacino shows his most beloved character in pitiful, pathetic guise, scarcely able to look the woman who robbed him of his third child in the eye, his sins greater than anything Diane Keaton’s Kay could countenance. And while only the most perverse fans would consider The Godfather Part III on an even level to the entries that came before it, the film boasts a tidy conclusion to the central character who is destined to carry the burdens of his ancestors, relatives and parents for all eternity.

Director Francis Ford Coppola intended for the film to be a coda, wrapping up the themes of the first Godfather movie with a damning character study of a mobster in repentance. The concept was deemed by many to be pretentious and was re-packaged as the third instalment of The Godfather saga, proving that commerce could take control of the noblest of artful intentions. More happily, the finished film stayed true to the sentiment of the original script; a few terse exchanges between Pacino and Keaton was all it took to show that this was a changed man, hiding from the memories that had so cruelly clung to him in old age.

Michael was greyer, sadder, and infinitely grumpier to the more assured man of his younger years, but he was clinging onto the final vestiges of hope: his children. Proudly protective of his children, Michael had now witnessed a son singing Italian arias and a daughter who was fast becoming the face of his charities. And although the public may have scorned him, the Catholic Church was offering absolution, provided he confessed the true nature of his murders. Assisted by his sister Connie, played by Talia Shire, Michael was gearing to rid himself of the burden, passing the title onto his nephew, Vincent (played with merciful glee by Andy Garcia).

In both the original and director’s cut, the film highlights Michael’s devotion to his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola), a lady he inadvertently brings to her death. Entrusted with her well being, Michael’s desire to protect her only brings her closer to her death. And while the 2020 cut highlights the pathos, the original film showcases the many women Michael has unwittingly mistreated in a deeply moving montage.

Pacino draws on his age and life experience to convey a sense of Michael’s tormented mindset. For a man who is famously garrulous and loud, he spends much of the film in silent contemplation, never rising to the business deals with certainty, but cautious acceptance. The fatigue that crept into The Godfather Part II has taken over completely, and Pacino only permits himself to let out his inner stage actor as he calls out for the name of a deceased brother during a diabetic attack.

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Otherwise, Pacino offers a sense of control he has rarely exhibited since, and it’s interesting to note that The Godfather Part III came a meagre two years before he shouted his way to the Academy Awards with Scent of A Woman. Pacino’s curt vowels and silent manner suggest a return to the Michael Corleone of his younger years, having triumphed on the battlefields, and impressed his father as an army combatant. It’s Marzo Puzo distilled, a miniature exhibition that screams integrity; odds are that if you are familiar with the source material, there’s a good chance that you will appreciate what Pacino is trying to do.

And yet his portrayal isn’t to everyone’s tastes in this picture, many pining for the mercenary mob king of the second film. It’s also true that the supporting cast, scattered and diverse, rarely live up to the demands of the script. Sofia Coppola is the obvious contender, but Shire is also sheepish, unsure whether she’s supposed to play ruffled dilettante of the original film or to create an entirely new persona from scratch. But such comments go against what Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t trying to achieve; the film is more interested in settling scores than starting new fights, which is why the subplot with the Church is so central to the work as a whole. In its own clever way, the film is implying that no one, no matter how virtuous, is beyond the temptation of sin, and Michael Corleone emerges from the trilogy quite well, having recognised the seriousness of his crimes, now beyond the realm of reason.

Lest we forget that the film came from a place of commerce, not art. Pacino’s starlight was fading by the beginning of the 1990s, and he was struggling to match Robert De Niro’s work ethic or star power. The Godfather Part III allowed Pacino the opportunity to recapture the performance that had put him on the map in the 1970s, and by returning to the skin for one last waltz, he was giving himself the chance to apologise to himself for the mistakes he made in the 16 years between projects. Art initiating life?

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