'Godfather III' is corrosive and genuine

COPPOLA: STILL MARRIED TO THE MOB

December 23, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Godfather III," the circle of corruption that was America widens and widens to include the Catholic church and, ultimately, the whole world.

This is clearly a cynic's view, but Francis Ford Coppola, who has buried a son, perhaps has earned his cynicism the hard way. Thus the somber, riveting, "Lear"-like tale that is "Godfather III" is far from perfect and represents a level of storytelling magic a few notches shy of the original two films.

But it is painfully genuine, the most corrosive film since Akira Kurosawa's equally bleak "Ran," which shares the common link to "Lear." Some of the story details may be blurry, but you feel Coppola's full engagement at the emotional level.

Al Pacino's Michael Corleone is Coppola's sick and tragic king. The year is 1979; Michael, the weight of his immoral choices graven into the fallen flesh of his face like the imprints of paws in the snow, is seeking escape from the guilt of his past (notably the murder of his brother, Fredo) in the bosom of the church. The film opens at one of those ironic family celebrations that marked the first two films, where honest joy and dirty business go hand in hand to the rhythms of the tarantella.

Michael is essentially trying to bribe his way into heaven by thrusting huge amounts of cash on the Vatican, and for his efforts is rewarded with a high church decoration, which is the cause of the party. But he has not lost his business acumen; at the same time, in exchange for the charitable donations, he expects Vatican support in a ploy to take over a European conglomerate, which will completely remove the Corleone family from the nasty trade that earned it its power.

The film moves through three acts; in an early ploy, we see Michael forestalling the challenge of a flashy mid-level gangster named Joey Zaza, well played by Joe Montegna; in a central section, Michael retreats to Sicily to recover his health (he's diabetic) and to contemplate the obstacles to his course; and in a final act, he moves swiftly and with authority to destroy his oppressors, but at tragic cost.

After the fashion of the first two movies, the plot dovetails with events in the real world, notably the financial scandal that rocked the Vatican in the late '70s and the short reign of Pope John Paul I.

We see in the plot themes that were expressed more forcefully in the first two films: the visionary Godfather opposed by a seemingly unworthy enemy who is actually fronting for a much slyer and more sophisticated opponent; the terrifying calculus in determining what is "family" and what is "business"; the coming of a swift young hero out of nowhere, and his rise, and at what expense; the development of tender young love, and its betrayal.

But "Godfather III" is never quite as sharp as its predecessors; its plot turns are muddled and the complex financial conspiracy that underlies the story never quite becomes clear, at least upon a first viewing. And, somehow, it never acquires the urgency that the first two films had.

And yet it's a wonderful movie. Pacino is simply magnificent; what a piece of work is man, and Pacino's soul-sick Michael is the species in microcosm, the injured king, bruised with regret, desperate for redemption, yet ever the wary warrior, the inspiring leader and the tender, devoted father. Without this icon of central charisma, there's no movie, and there's plenty of movie.

The younger generation is represented by Andy Garcia, as Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone's illegitimate son (we saw his vertical conception in the opening moments of the original "Godfather"). Garcia has been a star waiting to happen for about three years: Now he's happening, and how. His Vincent is tough and smart and Garcia shows him growing; we watch him shift from angry street punk to smooth choreographer of family business. Garcia is fire and ice -- he has Sonny's toughness and temper but he learns, over the movie's three hours, Michael's gift for control.

Others in the cast are also superb, particularly Diane Keaton, reprising Michael's wife Kay -- it's her best role and performance TC in years. Eli Wallach is appropriately avuncular as the endearing Don Altobello, behind whose chummy smile there may lurk other agendas. And Talia Shire does an excellent job as Michael's tough sister Connie, who has grown into a true mafiosa's persona.

Coppola's most controversial decision was to cast his own daughter, Sofia, in the role of Michael Corleone's daughter, also named Sofia, after Winona Ryder dropped out of the production on the first day of shooting. It is difficult to condemn a man for loving his daughter too much and attempting to give her the world; but the melancholy truth is that Sofia Coppola is not a professional actress. The camera sees what her father cannot: an untrained young woman never completely comfortable and extremely awkward in the intimate moments, as when she and Andy Garcia are purportedly in love. If you let this ruin the picture for you, my sympathies; I did not.

But the best thing about "Godfather III" is that, with the sam stately rhythms and burnished cinematography (Gordon Willis, brilliant), the sense of ritual and destiny, the movie returns you to what is paradoxically the darkest and the brightest of worlds: the darkness of crime and conspiracy and bitter failure, and the brightness of art and humanity and the pulse of life itself.

'The Godfather III'

Starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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