Friday, January 2, 2009

The Godfather, Part III

So, I just saw The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II on the big screen, the new restorations that have been doing the revival house rounds. I was very excited to finally see them on film, although I was rather bummed that the Brattle didn't scrounge up an old print of The Godfather, Part III to show. I consider the Godfather movies to be among the treasures of the cinema. I know that this makes me a very typical American male...

I've seen the Godfather movies more times each than I've seen any other movie, probably, so I'm sure that while this is my first Godfather post, it won't be my last. But since it is the first, I thought I'd better establish my basic perspective on the films. What follows is a user comment I posted a number of years ago on a different website, under a different name. If I was writing it now I'd probably change a few things, but I'll let that be the subject for another time.

Here 'tis:

I don't consider Godfather 3 to be a sequel except in the strict, literal sense of the word: it came after the earlier movie. In the pejorative sense in which the word is usually used of movies - i.e., something that was thought up later to cash in on the success of the first one - this is definitely not a sequel.

Godfather 3 is, instead, just what it says it is: part three of a single, unified story.

I see the Godfather trilogy - stay with me now, stop rolling your eyes - as a tragedy along Greek or Elizabethan lines. Remember how they taught you in high school about the structure of the Elizabethan 5-act tragedy? The climax was in the third act, in the sense that in the middle the tragic hero did something that sealed his fate, and everything after that was just the relentless playing out of the consequences of that single deed.

Looked at in this way, Michael Corleone is the tragic hero of the Godfather movies. And as a tragic hero he's up there with the best of them - just as archetypal in his own way as Oedipus or Hamlet.

Michael is the man who can't live down his heritage, the man who can't escape his upbringing, or, ultimately, himself. Like all good tragic heroes, he has enough potential for good to make him a sympathetic figure- he wanted so badly to get out; even in part three, decades into a life of crime, Michael can make you believe he has always wanted out. But it's his own weaknesses, his own ambition - his own virtue, in a way - that ruins him.

His tragic act, the one which sealed his fate, was ordering Fredo's death at the end of part two. One might say that it came earlier, with the kiss of death he gave Fredo in Havana ("I know it was you, Fredo"), but still, up until the point that he actually ordered the execution, Michael could have turned back. But after that point, his own fate was sealed. He had destroyed, symbolically, the very thing that he had been fighting to protect all his life: his family.

So why make part three? Isn't this all understood at the end of part two?

Coppola had to make part three for the same reason the Elizabethans had to write the last two acts of their tragedies: the cathartic, morally instructive, and dramatically satisfying part was in watching what came after the turning point. You know, in act three, that the hero is doomed, but you have to watch his doom played out. That's emotionally satisfying, it's morally necessary, it's artistically beautiful.

And that's what Godfather Part III is all about. You know, if you paid attention to part two, that Michael is not going to live happily ever after. He can't: in the moral universe of the movie, but more importantly in the moral universe he has created for himself, he has committed an unforgivable sin, and he must pay. But he doesn't know it yet: being human, he can always convince himself that he'll be able to escape culpability for his actions - until, that is, his guilt is driven home to him.

Thus, when critics complain that Godfather 3 is anticlimactic, they're more right than they realize - it's not the climax of the trilogy. It's the long, tragically necessary playing-out of Michael's doom.

We know how it will end, thematically at least: but there's great beauty and pathos in watching Michael be utterly destroyed. We watch his grandiose plans to save the Church (!), knowing all the time that his hopes are in vain. He cannot be forgiven. Just like the cardinal his confessor says: he could be forgiven, but he himself does not believe it. This is great tragedy, folks. It's entirely appropriate that the last third of the movie be acted out to the backdrop of an opera, because that's what this is.

And this is how the movie's climactic scene should be seen.

When Michael's daughter is killed, he suddenly loses that which is most precious to him - and he realizes, you can see it in his eyes, that it's all his fault. This is a divine retribution upon him for killing Fredo. He wanted to protect his family, and only ended up ensuring their destruction. Michael's scream on the steps of the opera house is one of the great cathartic moments in movie history - moves me to tears every time I see it. You can just see the man's whole life melt there into one sustained cry of anguish. (A brilliant stroke of Coppola's directorial brush, the decision to make the first breath of his scream silent, only music - it makes it that much more intense, and private.)

Performances: uniformly excellent. Pacino's style, in the intervening fifteen years, had become much more demonstrative, but it fits the character, as the steely control of the young Michael Corleone relaxes into the benign self-confidence of the older man.

Diane Keaton, as she did before, gives unbelievable depth to what is still a fairly minor role - somehow managing to conjure up the entire non-Sicilian world in the single character of Kaye. Andy Garcia is fantastic as Sonny's son. Everybody, in fact, gives perfectly nuanced performances, except, of course, poor Sophia, and hers is the most important role!

Perfect conclusion to the best movie ever made.

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