Francis Ford Coppola has rewritten the third part of his Mafia saga. "The Godfather, Epilogue: The Death of Michael Corleone" now flows better.
Enjoying opera while their lives are in danger: Kay Adams-Corleone (Diane Keaton) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) Photo: Universal
A late sequel is always such a thing, the late sequel to a classic even more so. No wonder, then, that Francis Ford Coppola had a hard time when he made "The Godfather III" in 1990, 16 years after the second part of a double that is without question one of the best films of all time. Criticism was intense; neither fans of the Mafia saga nor the critics were taken with it, and Coppola himself was ambivalent about his work.
But 30 years later, the media landscape has changed; home video releases make it relatively uncomplicated to intervene in old works, to re-cut them, to change them. To improve it, too? That’s what Coppola has tried to do with the now released third part of the "Godfather" saga, which bears the equally long and awkward title: "Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Epilogue: The Death of Michael Corleone". One might find this title somewhat misleading in light of the film’s ending, but more on that later.
This is not the first time Coppola has re-cut older works. He turned the first two "Godfather" films into a TV series, there are already three official versions of "Apocalypse Now," and "The Cotton Club," made in 1984, was resurrected as a director’s cut last year.
This and other expensive flops meant that Coppola was almost broke at the end of the 1980s and was therefore persuaded to make a sequel to his successful films. An irony of history: While in 1974 it was something unheard of to make a sequel to a successful, Oscar-winning film, sequels have since become an increasingly popular way for Hollywood to minimize the risk of increasingly expensive film productions.
"The Godfather, Epilogue: The Death of Michael Corleone." Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Al Pacino, Diane Keaton a.o. USA 2020, 158 min. in home theater.
The original plan was to tell the story of Tom Hagen, the family’s loyal advisor, in the third part of the "Godfather" saga. But his actor Robert Duvall demanded too high a fee, so Coppola and his writer Mario Puzo had to rethink.
They remembered the scandals that gripped the Vatican at the end of the 1970s: 1978 went down in history as the year of the three popes, and the pontificate of John Paul I, which lasted only 33 days, in particular, gave rise to conspiracy theories. Was the Pope possibly murdered because he wanted to expose the swamp of corruption around the Vatican Bank, around Roberto Calvi, who was called the "banker of God"?
This was claimed, among others, by the investigative journalist David Yallop, whose book "In the Name of God?" almost served as a blueprint for "The Godfather III." After all, what family might be more close-knit, but also more corrupt, than a Mafia family like Michael Corleone’s? The church, of course, whose rules and customs are at least as strict as those of the Mafia.
Daring to join forces with the church, to finally achieve legitimacy through financial ties to the Vatican, may seem a bit absurd, but that is exactly the plan of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, whose thick black hair has been changed to an almost military-looking mottled gray brush cut.
While the old version started in the church, the new one begins in a more unspectacular and concise way: In the office of the Vatican Bank, where Michael Corleone sets up the deal that will free his family from the depths of crime.
With brute force to the new godfather
Inevitably, this decision is taken as weakness, so a few assassination attempts later Vincent Corleone comes into play, the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny. Andy Garcia plays this Vincent, who soon becomes the new godfather by brute force and inevitably makes it clear to Michael that he is trying in vain for forgiveness even in the bosom of the church.
This is made abundantly clear in the final image of the new version, the strongest intervention besides the altered beginning. Although Coppola shortened the film by a good five minutes and made over 350 changes to the picture and sound, most of them are hardly noticeable, providing above all a tighter narrative, a more flowing rhythm. The biggest point of criticism could not be changed anyway: The presence of Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who stepped in at short notice for a role that overwhelmed her.
As Michael Corleone’s daughter, she falls in love with Vincent and ends up being shot, on the steps of an opera house, of all places. With bullets meant for her father, who at that moment must realize once again that he cannot escape his fate. Shortly after that, unlike the original version, the film does not end with the death of its main character, at least not a physical death.
Michael Corleone was already a living dead at the end of the second part, when he sat lonely on a bench after the murder of his brother, which he had ordered. As an epilogue, this new version also works only conditionally, it is – of course – still not as good as the first two. As the conclusion of a great trilogy, however, "The Godfather III" was and is absolutely worth seeing.