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How ‘The Godfather Coda’ Allows Francis Ford Coppola to Redefine His Biggest Disappointment

Francis Ford Coppola's new edit of "The Godfather Part III" adds crucial new context and redeems Sofia Coppola's notorious performance.

"The Godfather Coda" Al Pacino

“The Godfather Coda”

Some people have never seen “The Godfather Part III” despite their love for Sofia Coppola, whose career behind the camera emerged from the ashes of her supposedly amateurish performance as Michael Corleone’s doomed teenager daughter in her father’s trilogy-capping epic. This writer had never seen “The Godfather Part III” because of my love for Sofia Coppola.

Born in 1984 and raised to think of the “Lost in Translation” director as more of an auteur than an actress, I’ve been all the way in on the likes of “Somewhere” and “Marie Antoinette” from the moment Coppola’s movies came into my life, and it always seemed unnecessary — even rude — to dig through the trash and unearth what I understood to be her greatest embarrassment (even if Coppola herself is blasé about the whole thing). It goes without saying that I grew up in the thrall of “The Godfather” and its sequel, but I liked the idea of letting Michael stew on his sins along the shores of Lake Tahoe for all eternity, and the gifs that survived “The Godfather Part III” (“Dad?”) left me the impression that Coppola’s semi-reluctant star turn had been so disastrous that it didn’t even need the internet to become a meme-able symbol of the movie’s stained reputation.

But when it was announced that her restless father had inevitably assembled a new cut of his most famous cause célèbre and re-christened it with the title he’d always wanted for the film — “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” — I knew my time had come. That tweak alone was enough to indicate that the elder Coppola, with his daughter’s apparent encouragement, was eager for people to see “The Godfather Part III” in a soft new light; that he wasn’t trying to make it “better” so much as he was trying to shift its place in history and reframe the picture as less the third part of a flawed trilogy than the postscript of a legendary dyad.

That might not seem like a big deal for a chronic tinkerer who once re-edited the first two chapters of this saga into chronological order, inserted a whole sequence back into “Apocalypse Now,” and abandoned plans for a roadshow version of “Twixt” that would have seen him would travel to theaters around country and remix the vampire drama in real-time. But none of Coppola’s efforts to retcon his work have matched the ambition of trying to fundamentally re-contextualize one of his films. It’s the most profound change that someone can make to a movie.

My lifelong disinterest in “The Godfather Part III” had made me a perfect target for Coppola’s latest experiment. I would be coming to it fresh, thinking of the film as more of a curio than a climax, and bringing along a well-earned respect for its maligned breakout “star” that greatly outweighed whatever charges of nepotism had been leveled at her in 1990. After 30 years of avoiding “The Godfather Part III” out of kindness, watching it suddenly felt like an act of generosity.

I’m happy to report that my saint-like charity and/or ignorance was duly rewarded. Whether it’s because of the subtle (but significant) alterations that Coppola has made to the movie, the relative lack of baggage that I brought to the movie, or some combination of the two, “The Godfather Coda” is a far more poignant capstone to the Corleone saga than “The Godfather Part III” has ever been widely considered; it’s often gripping, sometimes masterful, and almost never betrays its history as the work of a wayward giant scrambling back toward respectability after a long decade lost in the wilderness.

Now that I’ve also caught up with the theatrical cut, it’s clear that Coppola’s film has always followed Michael’s futile search for an offramp toward legitimacy and the redemption that he might be able to find at the end of that road (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”). Yet “Coda,” and the different context that accompanies it, allow these same events to feel less like a continuation of “The Godfather” series, and more like a clear-eyed commentary on it. It’s one thing to know that Michael will never forgive himself for killing Fredo, but it’s another to examine the aftermath of that mythic American murder in the cold light of day — to see what it means for a Great Man to outlive the blinding power of his own myth.

And for a movie series to do the same. Divorced from the “Godfather” legend by title, appearance, and time, “Coda” gains new power as a kind of cinematic transubstantiation from memory to reality. “The Godfather Part II” ended by asking if a feared man can be loved, and “The Godfather Part III” flipped that question on its head by asking if a loved man can be feared (“I did what I could to protect you from the horrors of the world,” Michael tells Kay, only for her to reply, “but you became my horror”). “Coda” allows similar questions to resonate in raw and self-reflexive new ways. Can a film saga as mythic and foundational as “The Godfather” function in the real world — corporate, globalized, and freshly unvarnished of Gordon Willis’ sepia veneer — or will it always be defined by the memory we share of it in our mind’s eye? Is redemption as hopeless for Coppola as it always will be for Michael?

At the end of the day, only time can render those kinds of verdicts, but actively conflating “The Godfather Part III” with the same identity crisis that haunts its lead character allows “Coda” to illuminate the two films that came before it (to use the word that Coppola assigns to the project in the video introduction that precedes it). It’s no accident that the first and most striking thing I noticed about “Coda” is how little it feels like a “Godfather” movie. By far the biggest structural change that Coppola has made to the movie concerns the opening scene, which now immediately drops us into Michael’s business dealings with Archbishop Gilday of the Vatican Bank after a flurry of establishing shots frame the meeting with harsh blue sunlight and the cold steel of modern New York skyscrapers.

This scene used to happen roughly 30 minutes into the film — after the party and backroom favor-mongering that traditionally begin these stories — but moving it to the start liberates Michael from the sludge of his memories and reintroduces him instead as a titan who’s actively trying to make himself right with the gods before the devil claims his soul.

That framing lends Michael an instant desperation that explains his desiccated face (if not Al Pacino’s tragic haircut), and endows him with a clear purpose that’s powerful enough to persevere against the winds of change that swirl around it. Where “The Godfather Part III” feels like it’s happening to Michael, “Coda” feels like a film that he’s fighting to control, and then escape. While Vito Corleone looked old as hell at a similar age, Michael looks more palpably dislocated from his time, and that distinction colors some of the most notorious side plots.

Vincent Corleone’s evolution from himbo greaseball to mafia kingpin is tough to swallow in the span of just 150 minutes, but — when refracted through Michael’s mindset — his Cinemax-ready fling with journalist Grace Hamilton (and the skin crawling leather sexcapades that follow with his cousin Mary) make sense as a hostile takeover against the self-image of the Corleone family, and not just their underworld standing. Michael seems just as horrified as we are to discover that his world now owes as much to the classic gangster pictures of the mid-‘70s as it does the sleazy erotic thrillers of the early ‘90s; the theatrical cut might be uncomfortably suspended between “The Godfather” and “Jade,” but “Coda” stresses that disconnect until it starts to feel as if the entire movie is an expression of Michael’s anachronisms (even if that makes it almost impossible to remember that this story is supposed to take place in 1979).

In that light, the slack-jawed modernity of Sofia Coppola’s performance doesn’t clash with the film around it. On the contrary, her ultra-naturalism helps trace the distance separating Michael from the actual lifeblood of the family he’s supposedly trying to protect, and her casual line deliveries become a kind of echo-location to help both of her dads (on screen and off) find their ways back home. As for her much-ridiculed death scene… it’s great? I suspect it always has been.

Even after watching both versions of this convoluted movie I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening behind the scenes during the grand finale (it makes enough sense in broad strokes), but the climactic 20 minutes of this movie are as expertly orchestrated as anything Francis Ford Coppola has ever made. If “The Godfather” and its sequel were operas unto themselves, this sequence crystallizes how “Coda” was always intended to see them at a slight remove – at once inextricable from the larger-than-life story unfolding on stage, and yet also insistently separate from it at the same time. At the slight risk of giving young Sofia too much credit, her demise on the steps of the Teatro Massimo unfolds with a flourish of Mascagni-esque melodrama as the film splits the difference between the world that Michael comes from and the one that he’s made for himself. That read might seem like a stretch at the end of “The Godfather Part III,” but “Coda” renders it close enough to touch.

From there, Coppola the senior only has to deliver on the threat promised by the full title of his new cut. The last moments of “The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” are as clipped and awkward as those at the end of “The Godfather Part III,” but to markedly different and more powerful effect. The only death that Michael gets here is a spiritual death, as he’s lost in the hall of mirrors that “Coda” allows this story to become.

Whether they pulled Michael back in or he tripped and fell over his own sins, he was never going to get out at the end. But now Coppola denies him even the slightest reprieve from his suffering, as he leaves Michael stuck in this movie for 100 years, forced to look back over his shoulder for all time and forever reflect upon how long ago and far away “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” have become.

“The Godfather Coda” is now available on Blu-ray and VOD.

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