Time did a great deal of damage to Michael Corleone, and every bit of it shows up on Al Pacino's haggard, wisened face. He has bags beneath his eyes the size of steamer trunks.
That face sticks in your head long after "The Godfather Part III" ends. Unfortunately, "The Godfather Part III" is a seriously flawed film, but for those of us who couldn't get enough of the Corleones, it satisfies. The film is filled with allusions to events, scenes and camera angles found in the first two "Godfathers," and yet some decidedly bad casting wounds the film.
DIRECTOR AND co-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola picks the saga up in 1979, almost 20 years after "The Godfather Part II." As Michael bows to receive an honor from the Roman Catholic Church, his mind returns to the day he had his brother Fredo shot out in Lake Tahoe. Michael wants to atone, but he doesn't think he's redeemable. He's betrayed himself and his family, and it's evident he spent the intervening decades in spiritual agony, even as he brings the family into legitimate businesses.
At a New York party, Michael has his daughter, Mary, (Sofia Coppola), give a check for $100 million to the Vatican for the poor of Sicily. Michael, the intellectual hood, was always class-conscious, and now he warns a strangely nervous Vatican banker (Donal Donnelly) to make sure the money really gets to the poor. The old family lawyer and brother Tom Hagen is gone, replaced by the sleek George Hamiltion.
MICHAEL TRIES to reconcile with Kay (Diane Keaton); she remarried, but she still harbors deep feelings of love and fear for her ex-husband. Over Michael's strong objections, she demands he allow his son to give up law school for a singing career. He relents.
But even as his press agent (Don Novello) tells a cynical press corps the Corleones are wonderful, law-abiding people, Michael finds himself drawn back into the underworld.
That underworld becomes personified in his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael's fatally impetuous brother Sonny. Vincent falls out of favor with his boss, the dandy punk Joey Zasa (the excellent Joe Mantegna), and to repair the damage Michael takes Vincent under his wing to teach him how the don does business.
AFTER THAT lengthy, well-choreographed set-up, the movie dives into a very complicated set of plot twists that take the audience through, among other things, Vatican corruption, the Sicilian countryside and two daring rub-outs, one in an Atlantic City casino and another at a festival in New York's Little Italy. Michael's son also ends up singing in Palermo on the night the plot climaxes, and Coppola uses the opera to frame the final murders at the film's end. "The Godfather Part III" wisely follows the same basic pattern as the first two party at the beginning, killing at the end.
In the film's strongest moment, Michael meets with a wise cardinal who lets Michael confess his most horrid crimes. That cardinal goes on to become the ill-fated Pope John Paul I, and Coppola boldly ties the pope's death in to the Corleone story.
COPPOLA redeems himself here after years of self-indulgence. The film, although almost three hours long, feels fairly tight. Garcia plays Vincent with a seething energy as he wavers between his violent instincts and Michael's subtle brutality. The character has none of the tragic elements of Michael, but he must pay a heavy price of his own for power.
And Coppola's images are rich in meaning and references to the first two films: Michael and Kay watch a marriage at a church in the town of Corleone, Sicily, from which Michael's father fled and where Michael married Apollonia, who died in a car bombing during the first "Godfather."
We see Kay again looking through a half-open door as Michael does business, just as she did in the first "Godfather." And the film has brilliant images of its own: In the opera scene, men wearing skull masks parade a statue onto the stage as an assassin prepares to do the bidding of Michael's enemies.
BUT COPPOLA shoots himself in the foot with the casting of his daughter as Mary, Michael's daughter. She's the emotional pivot of the film: Michael's adored offspring and the forbidden love of Vincent, her cousin. She must spark deep passion in these two men, but Sofia Coppola, who replaced an exhausted Winona Ryder, can't act. She smugs and sneers her way through the film. It's a horrendous blunder from a director whose inspired casting gave such depth to the first two "Godfathers."
But a lot of "The Godfather Part III" fulfills expectations, and it gives us one more chance to study Michael Corleone.
Richard LeComte J-W Arts Editor