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The Godfather Part 3:

Can a destructive man of power be forgiven?

Andrew Knock (2003)


1  Outline

  1. The hope of redemption - lukewarm responses to the film point to the general difficulty we have with forgiving tyrants Pacino1.jpg (5529 bytes)
  2. The impact of the Godfather story - the greatest films deal with both power or achievement and personal, family issues
  3. Is this man beyond forgiveness? - Michael Corleone began as a wartime hero; what did he actually do wrong?
  4. Contrasting Vito and Michael - Michael tried so hard to be his father, he forgot to be himself
  5. "I want out - they pull me back in!" - Michael tries to find release, but can he - can we - ever escape the resurgence of the past through other people?
  6. Beginnings of forgiveness - only other people, outwith his control, can bring forgiveness
  7. Too late - and the risk of looking to other people is that they can be taken away from us, beyond our control
  8. Conclusion

1  The hope of redemption

The Godfather Part 3 is one of the most profound of all movies about aspects of forgiveness.  The question it explores, "Can a really bad man be forgiven?" is one we seem never to tire of.  In a general sense, the more objective answer is something like, "Yes, some people do have the ability to forgive the villain they know; yet other people cannot.  Which kind are you?"  (See an earlier ForgivenessNet e-letter on the death of Myra Hindley, December 2002, or the core article Should forgiveness be unconditional?)  But we still want to ask, "Can we - can I - become forgiving towards a terrible man or woman?"; and it is this question, and the process of growing towards forgiveness, which The Godfather Part 3 opens out for us.

When it was released in 1992, fans wanting a movie like the first two were disappointed, but with time the movie can be evaluated and explored on its own terms.  Francis Coppola, the creator of the Godfather movies, saw Part 3 as an epilogue and wanted to call it The Death of Michael Corleone, but Paramount Studios refused. 

Sixteen years after making Part 2, Coppola's view of this enormous dramatic figure had changed, paralleling some changes in his view of his own life.  Al Pacino, who plays Michael Corleone in all three films, worked with Coppola to come at the character from a new angle (including the grey, cropped hair):

"He wasn’t going to be the Michael Corleone of the other two pictures, (aiming) to be one step ahead of all the adversaries.  He was going to be a kind of man more concerned with his hope of redemption, a hope to be re-united with his family, a hope of earning back, if not the respect, the regard of his wife.  These were his concerns, rather than who was going to control the cocaine business in West Long Beach ..."

The initial lukewarm reaction to the film was focussed quite unpleasantly on Coppola's casting of his own daughter Sophia - an untrained and awkward young actress - as Michael's daughter Mary.  But in retrospect this was never a major flaw (and now seems a positive virtue; she plays 'gawky' really well, and also reminds us of Michael's true love, his first wife Apollonia).  Most fans just didn't 'get' Michael as someone capable of repentance or as deserving forgiveness ... and in that reaction they are typical of most human beings, for whom great villains do not deserve forgiveness, mercy and peace.  Not only in its story, but in its effect on Godfather fans, the film asked, "Can a really bad man be forgiven ... by you, the onlooker ... or do you just want to see more violence begetting violence until a bloody end?"

2  The impact of the Godfather story

Coppola tells how Rudy Giuliani, when Mayor of New York, told him Saddam Hussein adored The Godfather, and used to quote many lines of dialogue among his family circle.  Writer/director Nora Ephron made delightful play on the way men instinctively refer their behaviour and reactions to The Godfather, in her movie You've Got Mail.  Indeed, the world-wide reach and resonance of these films is extraordinary.  Most polls of the greatest-ever movies now place The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 jointly at the top, replacing Citizen Kane

All three films portray the rise to power of an immensely strong-willed, intelligent man who seems to get away with awful deeds, and they also gaze intently on the damage to his soul as a consequence.  The films do this above all by showing the rise to power in sharp contrast to issues of family and personal happiness.

Citizen Kane shows the loss and lack of family - a man given Faustian riches yet taken away from his home and childhood.  But the story is more subtle in Coppola's films.  What elevates The Godfather series beyond any other film is that achieving terrible power and finding real love in one's family are explored equally deeply, in the same characters.  It is the regular, seismic collisions between family and 'business' which enlarge each character and generate the  atmosphere of towering solemnity no other film has quite achieved, drawing each new audience to care about the smallest detail of plot or reaction.

3  Is this man beyond forgiveness?

In the opening, rather disorientating scene of Part 3, we find Michael receiving papal honours, made Commendatore in the order of St Sebastian.  His voice-over speaks of his hope for “a new period of peace” with his children. He clearly hopes, somehow, that he can be treated as a good man, once he has severed connection with his past crimes.  [In the rest of this article, references to the story or screenplay and to the DVD commentaries by Coppola for all three films are given as minutes (nn").]

Coppola quotes writer Mario Puzo's famous phrase from Part 1, “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” (4") and says that the opening of Part 3 turns this on its head: the real truth is, it’s all personal.  Walter Murch (film editor) persuaded him to start with the family event.   Coppola, who frequently draws parallels between Michael's story and his own life, personalised the film even more by putting his father and also his mother alongside Sophia and his sister Talia Shire (playing Michael's sister Connie in all three films) in the opening party after the religious service. 

This high level of personal involvement is, surprisingly, one key to the films' greatness.  Robert DeNiro observes, “He made the film – the whole style of it and everything – he personalised the original screenplay in a way that he could understand, so it has a warmth, it has a romanticism about it, that’s its trademark almost, you know.” (from The Godfather Family - a Look Inside.)   In his commentary on Part 1, when Connie phones Sonny after Carlo has thrashed her with a belt, we see Momma Corleone in the kitchen taking the call, surrounded by kids.  Coppola tells us:

“I think where my personality had an influence on this picture is just that, you know, of course there was the conspiracy and the men in rooms, making plans, as has gone on throughout history, and I think, you know … I love children and I think in terms of ‘Where are the children when this is going on?’ … ‘What’s the food like when this is going on?’; ‘What’s the music?’

“My own preferences or orientations came to combine with what was the central grown-up adult male part of the story, but I was able to include the things that I love as well and that I think about.”  (111”)

Lest we forget, the first Godfather had introduced Michael as a war hero, the one 'clean' member of the family whom his father Vito and elder brother Sonny both wanted to see succeeding in a legitimate career - politics or industry.  Coppola comments, "Michael was a good man, an attractive and promising man.  And his conversion from a good man to an evil man is more horrible than some (one) who never had a moral idea in his eye." (19")  He was sucked in to the Mafia 'business' to protect his family after his father Vito was shot by another mob.  In Part 3 Michael says, Michael cries out, “All my life I wanted out. I wanted the family out.” (124") 

As we watch Part 3, can we remember this about him?  Or has the unfolding story of his rise to power as a Mafia don made it impossible for us to believe there is any goodness in him?  First let's remind ourselves of some of what he did:   He became a man who expanded a criminal empire, who killed off swathes of his rivals in finely planned and choreographed assassinations, who ruthlessly controlled every other member and every relationship in his extended family, killing off any male member who put the family at any risk, ultimately assassinating his own surviving brother, Fredo.  (That he has Fredo killed on the very fishing boat where Fredo had 'adopted' Michael's son Anthony and shown the boy the practical love and friendship his father could not makes the killing even more foul, a point well made by Kathleen Amen in her fine essay on Godfather Part 2, Everything is relative.)

And he seemed to lose his soul, becoming frozen, living solely to control.  In the first two films we watch him with increasing awe, not because we admire him but because we are somehow both afraid of and fascinated by his power and his single-mindedness.  This is the man we are now invited to forgive.  For Coppola, "the tragedy of The Godfather ... is the tragedy of America.   By the end of Godfather 2, just like America in that period, Michael had become wrapped in self-righteousness and distrusted everyone.”  Pacino adds, “getting more and more like a paranoid person, like a Nixon.”  (from The Godfather Family - a Look Inside)

4  Contrasting Vito and Michael

It is not only his clinical efficiency as a 'businessman' that makes him seem terrible.  He is feared by his family, but seems incapable of love.   This is in marked contrast to his father, Don Vito; and Godfather Part 2 takes us to the heart of the comparison, also suggesting that Michael was always trying to be like his father, and though succeeding in business, always failing as a father and husband.  We become aware that his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando) was happy and at peace among his family - and we warm to him because of this.  Movie critic Pauline Kael said of this, "Vito had a domestic life that was a sanctuary, but Michael has no sanctuary." (Fathers and Sons p401) 

Indeed, by cutting back and forth in Godfather Part 2 between Vito's early years as a Mafia don (played by DeNiro) and Michael's, Coppola accentuates the gulf between them.  We end up realising that Michael wanted so much to be like his father that he forgot to be himself.  In Everything is relative, Kathleen Amen notes that Coppola uses a slow dissolve from era to era if he wishes to emphasise the similarities between father and son, Vito and Michael, but a sharp jump or black screen if they are in contrast, as they usually are:

The transition after the attack at Lake Tahoe is a slow dissolve from Michael telling his son Anthony good-bye to Vito gazing lovingly upon his first-born infant Santino(Sonny); the similarity of doting fathers is obvious.

We do not know at this point in the film, however, that this scene with Anthony is the only time that Michael will interact with either of his children in a positive way.  Vito, on the other hand, is often seen carrying a baby or talking to a toddler. The fact of having children is important to Michael, but the actual raising of them seems low on his list of priorities, and this lack of real involvement in the lives of his children can be seen as one of the reasons for his ultimate emotional impoverishment.

After Vito has killed Fanucci, he goes home to sit with his young family on the steps outside his apartment, and tells the baby Michael how much he loves him. The tableau is drenched with irony, certainly, since Vito has just killed for the first time, has set in motion the accumulation of power and influence that will doom his son's humanity. But it is a scene of sweet, rich domesticity, especially as contrasted with the home to which Michael returns. There everything is covered with snow, with Anthony's new car abandoned in the yard.

The sharp cut from Michael and Kay's fight to the Corleones' trip back to Sicily emphasizes the difference between the latter's extravagantly romanticised view of family unity and the disintegration of Michael's family. With cinematography as lush as the music on the soundtrack, we see the extended Corleone family in one gorgeous setting after another. It is impossible to imagine Michael and his family making such a trip together, even before he and Kay become separated.

5  "I want out - they pull me back in!"

The story of Part 3 is built around Michael's desire to get out of the Mafia business.  This business is not just making money illegally, through gambling, narcotics, money-laundering, etc., nor the vicious pressures of criminal competition to outdo one another.  It's a lifestyle and culture of negative values, a 'business' that eats them alive.  It’s about a core value of revenge, Sicilian-style, running through all the business activities, which constantly negates any attempt to legitimise the business … and it’s the antithesis to forgiveness!

Coppola comments, “Michael seems to understand that it (the way of violent response to violence) has to end. You just can’t keep outsmarting your enemy in this back-and-forth, Orestia-type violence begetting violence.  To do that is to sacrifice your youth, because ultimately it will destroy the future.”  (77")

Initially, Michael only knows one way to seek redemption - buying it.  Coppola comments, Michael’s charitable vision was to “pay back the enormous amounts of money, to undo the way they were earned - to pay for his sin.” (15 & 18")  Michael tries to get out by buying Vatican support for his legitimate attempt to buy the multi-national company Immobiliare.  In a telling scene, Michael's lawyer B J Harrison (George Hamilton IV) puts the bid on the table:

The Corleones are prepared to deposit 500 million dollars in the Vatican bank at such time as Mr. Corleone receives majority control of Immobiliare.
Immobiliare could be something new -- a European conglomerate.  Few families, have control of such a company.
It seems in today’s world the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness.  Six hundred million dollars.
MICHAEL (smiles)
Don’t overestimate the power of forgiveness.

Still a businessman first and foremost, then.  Notice that Michael doesn't say "Don't underestimate the power of forgiveness," though it's easy to think he does.  He is resisting the Archbishop's greed, dealing for six, not five, hundred million dollars; the bittersweet irony is that we know he does also want some form of forgiveness.

Even though he hands over control of the Corleone business to his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), he finds that other Mafia groups make such a concerted attempt to wrest power from the Corleones that he must stay involved.  In exasperation Michael cries out, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” (64")   Meanwhile in Italy he meets new levels of intrigue from the Italian white-collar Mafia in the mysterious real-life network P2.  We gradually realise that the most powerful men in Italy are orchestrating all the attacks, in the US as well as Rome and Sicily.

When Michael seeks counsel from his trusted Sicilian mentor Don Tomasino, the advice calls him back to the Sicilian way:  “Your enemies always get strong on what you leave behind.”   The Sicilian view is that Michael can’t let go, he has to stay in there, fighting.  So even when one wants to begin again, to let go the mistakes of the past and start a new, good life, one is still at the mercy of other people ... and 'other people' aren't often very merciful!  Coppola identifies personally with the character of Michael at many points on this journey in search of redemption:

“The past is always having a war with the future, I find. I try so hard to be in the future and think of new things, new thoughts, and always I’m pulled back by the past … I find just as Michael wants to get on with his life, to mature and try to be a better man, but you get pulled back into something of your youth.” (62")

6  Beginnings of forgiveness

If there is to be any forgiveness, it will not come through Michael's effort - although it is important that he tries.  None of us can obtain it for ourselves ... but the seeking is profoundly important.  The effort Michael makes signals to other people, more merciful people, that he is more receptive to what they can give him.

After a massacre of most of the other Mafia dons in Atlantic City, when Michael only escapes through Vincent's alert understanding of what violence has come upon them, he begins to suspect the scale of the plot against him, and suffers a diabetic stroke.  His estranged wife Kay's (Diane Keaton) visit to his hospital bed (68") is the first glimmer of the possibility of redemption.   (The visit of the children with her is an autobiographical memory for Coppola, like his grandfather's diabetes and so much else here.) 

Then Michael goes to the Vatican to plead for his bid to take over Immobiliare with a sympathetic cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone).  In a rich and stylised interview, Michael finds he cannot exclude his personal longing for some peace or salve.   Coppola observes:

"The meeting with Lamberto weaves together “Michael’s personal story, in his desire for, really, redemption and forgiveness, and to be taken in the arms of God and be still welcome as his child; and equally the high level of the Vatican, which is in fact so corrupt and has always been so, and so venial and mercenary; so it takes you to two places at once.

"The main issue for Michael, as he meets Lamberto, is not the need for inside knowledge about gaining control of Immobiliare or Vatican intrigues, but 'How he stacked up as a man in his lifetime'."

[Lamberto will become the real-life Pope John Paul 1, whom many believe was assassinated by the same white-collar Mafia of P2.  We can note in passing that, if the film has a weakness, it lies here in the gradual weaving-in of real-life events to suggest that - absurdly - their outcome might depend on the fictitious Corleones: Michael is even made to say in the climax at Palermo's Opera House, "This Pope has powerful enemies.  We may not be in time to save him." {!} {143")]

Lamberto nudges Michael quite strongly to make a (hesitant) confession to him, and pronounces absolution.  This might seem a formal exchange - a spiritual life insurance for a wily businessman - except that Michael breaks off in tears.  The chink in Michael's cold steel grows larger and more open.

He then returns to talk with his sister Connie.  Connie grew as a character through Part 2, at the end pleading with Michael to be reconciled with his brother Fredo who, through ignorance and naivety, had aligned himself with a plot to kill Michael:

“Michael, I hated you for so many years.  I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself, so that you would know … so that I could hurt you.  You were just being strong for all of us, the way Poppa was, and I forgive you.  Can’t you forgive Fredo?  He’s so sweet and helpless without you.  You need me, Michael.  I want to take care of you now.”  (Disc 2 @ 44")

Michael went back to the main house with her, and embraced his brother Fredo … but exchanged a look with Neri as he did so, knowing they will soon kill Fredo.  Coppola then wittily observes:

“There’s a thing in Godfather films where people are always forgiving other people, and then they look up and you realise they haven’t forgiven them at all. They’re just telling them that they’re forgiving them so they’ll calm down and not have their defences up, and then they kill them anyway.  So watch out when some Mafia guy forgives you!”

Movingly, Connie continues to become a stronger person through Part 3, becoming the rock for not only Michael but also Vincent - indeed Coppola mentions in passing that Puzo based the original Godfather, Vito, on his own mother.  Only by being strong enough to be outwith Michael's control will she be able to bring any forgiveness.  After Michael speaks with Lamberto, she deliberately conveys that she knows Michael killed Fredo, but consigns the deed to events marked "Finished.":

I made confession, Connie. I confessed my sins.
Why Michael, that's not like you. You don't have to confess your sins to a stranger.
It was the man. A good man. A true priest. He changed things.
Michael, you know, sometimes I think of poor Fredo, drowned. It was God's will. It was a terrible accident. But it's finished. (Then, after Michael sighs) Michael, I love you. I'll always help you.
They hug. Connie starts crying and Michael comforts her.

7  Too late

When Michael takes his ex-wife Kay on a car tour of Sicily, they revisit many of the places Michael knew when exiled there.  The revisiting is cleansing, and sharing it with Kay allows him unmistakably to be happy - laughter, joy and light-heartedness re-enter this closed heart.  We realise, too, that the great love of Michael's life was Apollonia, the Sicilian woman he married and who was blown up in a car shortly after.   This hidden love, so cruelly taken from him, helps us lean even more into sympathy with Michael.  It also allows him to experience heart's ease and mercy from Kay.

He is not free from business.  He never will be, we realise.  But he has found himself, and become like Vito - a man trapped in a bad business, but with many redeeming qualities.  In the documentary The Godfather Family - a Look Inside, Robert Duvall (consiglieri Tom Hagen in the first two films) observes: “Coppola showed that the beginning and end of the world is a family, in love and companionship, no matter what life-style you choose, whether it be gangster, politician or schoolteacher or whatever.”

But now it is too late.  The P2-orchestrated attempt to kill Michael at the Palermo opera house goes horribly wrong, and Michael is not killed, but his beloved daughter Mary is.  With a silent scream (Walter Murch persuaded Coppola that the silence would be more terrible than any human sound) Michael watches his last hope for peace with his family taken from him, just as he became able to show them love.

8  Conclusion

Such a controlling, manipulative, brilliant and imaginative man as Michael initially hoped to be able to win forgiveness and redemption by his own skill and guile.  We should not dismiss this completely, in the movie or among those we know - wanting it is a major step, however clumsy and 'male' the manner.  However, it is other people, beyond his control and strong enough to remain beyond it, who bring mercy, joy and forgiveness - his ex-wife, Kay, and children Anthony and Mary, his sister Connie and a good Vatican Cardinal.

But there is risk and vulnerability; and the risk is that those who bring a beginning of forgiveness will go away, or be removed, before there is any resolution.

Michael only receives and experiences a personal release from his past - a wonderful but early stage on the path to full forgiveness.  We find, with growing sadness, that he does not have the time to move into becoming a forgiving person himself - and we see him die in old age, entirely alone.  n

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