Some Things Will Never Change with ‘The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone’

by Chris van Dijk
The Godfather Coda

First things first: don’t expect me to say anything original about the third entry of The Godfather franchise. Far greater minds than myself have reiterated its numerous flaws, especially how it pales in comparison to the first two Godfather films. The first thing people usually mentioned is Sofia Coppola. Yes, the casting of Sofia Coppola as the doomed daughter of Michael Corleone was an embarrassing blunder. But in all honesty, it’s not really her fault. Even if you are limited in the acting department, it’s hard to reject being offered a part in a legendary franchise. Just as George Lucas should receive the blame for casting Jake Lloyd, so should Francis Ford Coppola for casting his own daughter. Reading the harsh feedback they’ve received about their performance, it’s nigh impossible not to feel sorry for them.

Robert Duvall should have returned one final time as Tom Hagen. Ignoring the wacky casting of George Hamilton as Michael’s consigliere for a moment, the third entry could have been so powerful if its biggest conflict was between Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen. Supposedly, Hagen would have become an informant against the Corleone family. Their future feud was even slightly hinted at the end of The Godfather Part II. I would have loved seeing a conversation between the two about the murder of Fredo, Hagen being one of the few people brave enough to confront him head-on about this. This particular scene could have been one of the most powerful scenes of the franchise. But alas, there was a money dispute on Duvall’s contract, and so it wasn’t to be.

Certain aspects just don’t work. The helicopter massacre scene feels completely out of place — and there’s that baffling moment when one mobster keeps screaming about his ‘lucky coat’ before being gunned down(?).  The montage of Vincent’s murderous retribution in the climax also features one particular questionable assassination scene — death via glasses?

The romance between Vincent and Mary falls completely flat. Not just because of Sofia’s wooden performance, but because of the complete lack of chemistry between the two. Luckily, the romantic scenes between the two are brief but they do bog the film down.

To be honest, especially if you’re used to more realistic mobster films, or have read casually about mafia history, the film’s entire premise stretches credibility. The notion of a gangster becoming so incredibly wealthy that he’s able to donate $600 million to the Vatican is extremely far-fetched. Though truth be told, all three films have these outlandish aspects to them. Let’s also be honest here: Coppola made Part III out of monetary reasons. I don’t mean to sound cruel here. Coppola is an incredible filmmaker who dedicated much of his own money (and sometimes sanity) to produce his films. Even if his later work hasn’t reached the heights of his classics, many of them are still highly underappreciated and deserve to be re-evaluated.

The Godfather franchise was his biggest cash cow, and making the third one was the most lucrative investment for him. He would later also admit that he was in some financial difficulties. I’m sure the threat of tainting the legacy of his two mafia epics crossed his mind, but a man’s gotta eat.

I have a feeling this re-edit of The Godfather III was mostly done for financial reasons — same with his numerous re-edits of Apocalypse Now. The Blu-ray sales certainly made it worth it. I’m sure there was also a part of him that wanted to fix some of its narrative issues. Luckily, however, he didn’t feel the need to tinker his films with unnecessary CGI, unlike two other great filmmakers I shouldn’t need to mention…

**Note: to differentiate between the two versions, the new version will be referred to as Coda while the original version will be referred to as Part III.

You Really Don’t Know the Story?

This is the epilogue to Michael Corleone’s story, or as the title of this new version proclaims, a coda, a closing remark on his life and legacy. It’s 1979, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has grown to be one of the most powerful gangsters of the country, far beyond what his great father could have dreamed of. But Michael looks upon his past and legacy forlornly. He wants to be remembered not just for his brutality, but for the good he has done with the influence he has accumulated. Michael Corleone desires legitimacy, wanting to transfer his position as a powerful gangster to a corporate tycoon and possible humanitarian.

He pursues his path for redemption by donating large sums of money to Catholic charities. None of his charitable deeds convinces his ex-wife, Kay (Dianne Keaton), who still hasn’t forgiven him for how he alienated her from the family. To make sure the charitable donations to the church are properly distributed to the poor and needy, Michael hatches a plot to purify the church from within.

Corleone donates $600 million to the Vatican, via the slimy Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), the head of the Vatican bank who through bad deals and loans squandered much of the bank’s fortune. In return, he requests to become the biggest shareholder to a real estate company, Internazionale Immobiliare, which will increase his influence within the Vatican.

This move automatically infuriates many powerful people from both sides. In the mean streets, there is Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), a hotheaded hoodlum with a bloodlust (who sounds suspiciously a lot like Fat Tony from The Simpsons), who feels he’s being left out. While the founder of Immobiliare, Licio Luchessi (Enzo Robutti), is afraid Michael will enforce certain reforms that will disturb his business practices.

Besides business, there are family matters to attend to. Such as his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), being in love with her cousin, Vincent (Andy Garcia), whose position in the family keeps growing. Michael hopes to separate the two, not wanting his daughter to become involved in the darker aspects of their family business.

But no matter how hard Michael tries, the past keeps pulling Michael back into the world of crime. He will also discover that no matter how much he separates himself from the mean streets, these “enemies in high places”, can deal with difficult matters just as viciously.

The Performances

If there’s one joy to be had from the film, it’s the multitude of incredible performances, starting with its star Al Pacino. Some have criticized Pacino for not being able to echo the Michael they knew from Part II. In other words, this Michael is more ‘Pacino’ than ‘Corleone’.

I can partly sympathize with these critics, but to me, his performance is still mesmerizing. Even for the occasional Pacino-esque shouting he does in the film, he’s actually subdued through most of it. It’s in these quieter and subdued moments in which he excels.

At this stage of his life, Michael is a man constantly in battle with himself. He wants to leave his streetwise ways, remove his predatory instincts. There’s a desperation to this aging Michael, as he wants to be liked by his family and to be considered a good man. But deep down, he knows there’s nothing he can do to offset his path to damnation.

Not to mention I also think it’s right to consider that Michael might have changed, especially after being haunted by the death of Fredo for decades. The yearning for redemption was the logical story path for his character to take.

The supporting cast (besides Sofia, naturally) is all excellent. Andy Garcia rightfully received plaudits as the temperamental gangster prodigy, Vincent Mancini. He perfectly captures that balance between quiet intelligence and mobster machismo. I also adore Eli Wallach’s turn as Don Altobello, a malignant schemer masquerading as a kindly old man.

Mantegna is entertaining as the blusterous Zasa, obviously modeled after John Gotti, though he does sometimes stray into the mafia stereotype. Donal Donelly also intrigues as the chain-smoking and wholly corrupt Archbishop Gilday, the epitome of the cowardice moneychanger. There’s also a welcome return of Richard Bright as Michael’s loyal and merciless enforcer, Al Neri.

But outside of Pacino, it’s Talia Shire’s performance that impresses the most. Constantly draped in widow garb, having fully accepted her role in the Corleone family, she has risen to become the unofficial second-in-command to Michael Corleone. In a way, she has become the family’s matriarch. Realizing Michael is softening, she quickly pulls Vincent closer, just so he can take over the throne. It’s also heavily implied that she knows what happened to Fredo and that she has long accepted this. There’s also the subtle little ways she manipulates Michael, nudging him into making decisions, sometimes involving bloodletting, for the family’s ‘well-being’. Yet she also nurses Michael, taking care of him, giving him his diabetes medicine, listening to his woes. If there’s one blessing that came from Tom Hagen’s absence, it’s that Connie’s role was expanded.

The Changes

If you want to read about the list of changes in this re-edit, you can find them online. Having seen the original version numerous times, I can say that most differences will only be apparent to the most observant viewer. The opening is different, starting immediately with Michael’s conversation with Archbishop Gilday. Certain scenes are rearranged, some scenes go a little longer, others shorter, and the ending features one key difference.

Still, I don’t see how any of these changes could redeem its flaws. The narrative is slightly streamlined, but in my opinion, that wasn’t its biggest fault.

One particular fun change regards the aforementioned ‘murder via glasses’ scene. Originally the scene cuts just before the victim is stabbed with his spectacles. In Coda, we see it penetrating the victim’s neck and the result is fun Giallo-level gore. I wonder why this bit of gore was cut in the first place. Was it for the censors, or was Coppola worried that this already silly scene would become more laughable?

But there’s one important aspect that still makes me prefer the original version. For all its flaws, the final shot in The Godfather III always had poignancy. While the final scene in The Godfather Part II already perfectly encapsulates Michael’s damnation, the final scene in Part III never detracted from the tragedy, and even in a way, enhanced it.

The ending of Coda changes this. It doesn’t necessarily change the meaning of Michael’s journey, but I still prefer what we were shown in Part III.

Some Things Never Change…

I’ll be honest, I still enjoyed watching Coda, similar to how I’ve enjoyed watching the original version. On the one hand, it’s the epitome of a cinematic letdown, the typical sour note of a trilogy. A true wasted potential. But even so, it’s still good cinema. It’s not masterful, mind you, just good. There are so many great scenes sprinkled throughout. Many emotional beats still work. From Michael’s nostalgic return to the Old country, to the town of Corleone where his father adopted the surname, reminiscing about his murdered beloved, Appolonia; to Michael’s heartfelt confession about Fredo’s murder in the garden to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone).

The Vatican angle, though a little over-the-top, is interesting. The corruption of the Vatican is a subject not many filmmakers dared to tackle back then. Fusing Michael’s story with the real-life conspiracy theory surrounding John Paul I’s suspicious death and the Vatican Bank scandal was an inspired idea. There are even a few lines every mobster-movie aficionado knows by heart: “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” The operatic climax, the use of Cavalleria Rusticana, the culmination of Michael’s tragedy, remains a great way to end the Godfather Saga, even if I prefer Part III‘s version.

As it stands, however, I don’t think anyone who disliked Part III will consider Coda to be a massive improvement. There’s a discussion to be had which one is stronger on the editing angle, but both have the same emotional impact. Personally, I would go with Part III just for that missing final shot, as it always stuck with me.

Still, if you’re a devoted fan of Coppola’s filmography or The Godfather films in general, you’ll probably go see it. And like many cinephiles out there, you’ll probably repeat the same talking points about the film’s problems and virtues. Some things never change.

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1 comment

Nick Kush December 13, 2020 - 2:16 pm

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