In retrospect, The Godfather Part III plays like a prequel to The Sopranos, so it will be interesting to see whether the series’ own prequel film, Young Tony, will play out in terms of the iconography of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1990 film. The second episode of The Sopranos opens with a short scene – the only scene in the entire series that starts before the credits in this way – in which all of the main Mafia characters vamp on The Godfather III, which was only about a decade old when the series first aired. Throughout The Sopranos, The Godfather III almost plays as a meme – a continuous point of citational play that makes it far more present, as an influence, than the first two films in the trilogy for all of the major characters.
In part, that’s because The Godfather III establishes many of the concerns around legitimacy and Italian-American representation that would prove to critical so The Sopranos’ style and worldview. This time around, we open in 1979, during a period that is roughly contemporary with the release of the first two films. In fact, by 1979, the first two films would already have been released and celebrated in the New York milieu where The Godfather III begins, which is perhaps why Coppola is able to recapture the style of those films so easily and fluidly, while also allowing the third instalment to be its own thing, and function on its own terms. For the first time since the first film, the action shifts back to the Italian-American community in New York, but this community now feels diminished and deracinated, thanks in part to the fragmentation and dispersal of the Corleone clan. On the surface things look good, as we start once more with a ceremony – Michael receiving the Order of Saint Sebastian, “one of the highest orders the Catholic Church can bestow,” followed by a reception at his apartment, where we learn that he has come full circle in terms of his respectability. These days, his main job is managing the Vito Corleone Foundation, which “helps the impoverished of every country, gives funds for medical research, helps artists and is particularly dedicated to the resurrection of Sicily.” As a martyr for Sicily, Michael has become a spokesman for the Catholic Church, setting the stage for the Vatican financial drama that unfolds across the second act.
In addition, Michael has grown in stature within the broader Italian-American community, since we also learn that he has recently been named the Meucci Italian-American Man of the Year. As in The Sopranos, most of the characters in The Godfather III have achieved some critical distance from the first wave of Mafia films, and the history of Italian-American representation in American popular culture more generally. The Meucci award thus sets in place a series of reflections, from various characters, on the adverse ways in which Mafia texts have tarnished the image of Italian-Americans, drawing on the discourse around representation that were explored during the Senate hearings in the second film. For all these reasons, Michael appears to have finally reached his goal of getting “out” of the Mafia, allowing his sister Connie to handle the criminal end of the enterprise, partly because there’s nobody else left to do it. Once again, this anticipates the way in which The Sopranos mines the hidden history of female Mafia labour, especially since this opening scene sees Michael permitting his son – who is appropriately named Tony – to leave the family business and become an opera singer, leaving his daughter Mary, played by Sofia Coppola, as his main heir.
Throughout these early scenes, Michael comes off as a much richer, warmer and gentler character than in either of the previous two films, achieving a dignity and gravitas in old age that exceeds even the earliest days of his courtship with Kay, leading to the greatest sequence between them in the entire trilogy once the action moves to Sicily in the third act. Nevertheless, this opening ceremony is also dissociated from any real sense of family – whether authentic, as occurs in the wedding at the start of the first film, or simulacral, as occurs during the Lake Tahoe publicity stunt at the start of the second film. While Michael has built legitimacy for his family, he’s entirely estranged from his family, with the exception of his daughter Mary, since he’s long divorced from Kay, who only shows up at the party to request that he release his son Tony as well. This schism between family and Family, between biological family and Mafia family, is the driving principle of The Sopranos – here, as there, the Mafia is meant to be a reprieve from American capitalism, and a link back to the home country, but simply ends up intensifying the deracinating impact of capitalism on Italian-American communities. Yet whereas The Sopranos entirely dissociates these two forms of family in its opening episodes, The Godfather III holds out hope the fantasy can be fulfilled.
In order to fulfil this fantasy, Michael has to totally sequester the legitimate and illegitimate components of the Corleone business, while also finding some way to communicate between them as well. The answer comes in the form of Vincent Corleone, the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone, played by Andy Garcia, who is perfectly poised to occupy the slippery space between family and Family, between biological and criminal attachment. Vincent occupies exactly the same position here that Christopher Moltisanti does in The Sopranos, since he’s not quite regular family, but considerably more than mere Mafia family as well, especially given the abrupt and traumatic way that Sonny was murdered in the first film. Vincent brings a totally new energy to the trilogy – kinetic, volatile, and inimical to the stately pacing of the first two films. It’s his restless hyperactivity, for example, that prevents the family photograph that takes place at the end of the opening ceremony congealing into a static image in the same way as the two family photographs that are taken at the start of the previous two films.
Instead, Vincent is a restless and liminal presence, undoing the sanctity of both Michael’s biological family and his Mafia family, while also proving necessary to keep both functioning harmoniously and synergetically. By contrast, Michael takes on a kind of papal dignity and bearing as the film proceeds, eventually brokering a relationship with the Vatican Bank to help the Catholic Church overcome a 750 million deficit. Receiving majority control of a European conglomerate owned in part by the Catholic Church, Michael is assured by the highest Vatican priests that his financial contribution will be his ultimate act of absolution and expiation: “Your whole past history – the history of your family – will be washed away.” The Godfather III thus updates the Mafia film for a new era of financial, corporate and white-collar crime, while anticipating the lurid corporate thrillers of the 1990s, especially those that used stylised Catholic imagery, such The Devil’s Advocate. More distantly, it feels pivotal for the Vatican thrillers and dramas that emerged in the early 2000s in the wake of The Da Vinci Code.
Michael’s financial relationship with the Catholic Church is thus both a corrupt business deal and his ultimate confession, paving the way for his only confession in the entire trilogy. Brokering his financial and religious connections, Michael tries to purify money itself – and purify the market more generally – performing a kind of benediction of late capitalism that atones for both his own deeds and the system that enabled them in the first place. By trying to purify capitalism itself, Michael often seems to be attempting to remove the capitalist mechanisms that created the Italian-American Mafia to begin with, since both of these institutions – the Mafia and capitalism – have simultaneously deracinated and dispossessed his people. On a more practical note, converging the Mafia with the Vatican is, for Michael, the only way for both institutions to keep up with the pace of late capitalism. By definition, this focus on white-collar crime makes The Godfather III less visceral, for the most part, than the previous two films, but there’s a different kind of intensity in seeing Michael in high-end corporate environments as well – whether the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, which are pointedly set against the Gothic religious architecture of the old Italian neighbourhoods, or the gentrified coffee shops in Vito’s old tenement where he meets to catch up with Mary.
These gleaming new spaces tend to relegate the postmodern vistas of The Godfather Part II to the remote past, which is perhaps why Godfather III feels set, as well as filmed, in the early 1990s. The most extravagant postmodern space of the trilogy so far is also the last, and used as a backdrop for the last gathering of the Mafia old guard – a meeting of the family heads at the Palazzo Azzurro in Atlantic City, which ends with one of Michael’s enemies flying over in a helicopter and firing into the rooftop function space. This is the first time we’ve seen helicopters in Coppola’s career since Apocalypse Now, so this also feels like Coppola finally putting the grand spectacular ambitions of his 70s films behind him, as well as the postmodern image economy they sought to match and exceed. Coppola would only aim for this flamboyant level of spectacle once more, in Dracula, before falling back upon a more muted and melancholy register that starts here with the abrupt shift to Sicily in the wake of the attack in New Jersey. Before that happens, however, the trilogy reaches its melodramatic climax, as Michael suffers a stroke, in the midst of a thunderstorm, that seems to both prefigure Tony Soprano’s panic attacks and exhaust his spectacular ambitions as family Don.
This movement to Sicily is also motivated by Tony, who has decided to make his opera debut in a Palermo production of Cavalleria Rusticana, one of the most iconic odes to Italian bucolic bliss. For a moment, it seems as if the Mafia project of articulating a restored connection to homeland must be on the cusp of completion, starting with Michael’s arrival in Sicily, where he is greeted with Tony singing him a folk song from their ancestral town of Corleone. This song also happens be the theme music of The Godfather trilogy itself, but now with Italian lyrics, which transport Michael back to his short-lived wedding to Simonetta during his courtship to Kay – the only time he glimpsed the Italian identity he has been searching for his whole life. The sepia-toned promise of that Italian wedding spills out into the Sicilian scenes here, which radiate a deep and abiding sense of fecundity – the fecundity of old age, the fecundity of Sicily, and the fecundity of the folk traditions of the Catholic Church. Nearly every Sicilian scene is suffused with flowers, vegetation and bright green hues in the background, providing Michael with the critical distance he needs to assess the situation in New Jersey, but also a vantage point for Coppola to look back, without undue nostalgia, on his trilogy too.
Since this fecundity fulfils Michael’s first marriage, it makes sense that Kay accompanies him to Sicily, resulting in a gorgeous sequence in which he shows her around the island, eventually taking her back to where Vito was born, and where the Corleone saga as we know it began. This sequence is the apex of Coppola’s late style, recalling Michael and Kay’s intimacy in the first film, but pairing it with a more playful and leisurely pace, as they both discover a future they never had, and could never have had. In some ways, Michael’s characterisation is more compelling here than in the second film, where he was totally identified with his deeds, resulting in one of the very best performances of Pacino’s career, the first two films included. As one of the most beautiful sequences in his latest career, this is also one of the few times when Coppola’s longing for the past feels hard-won rather than self-indulgent, as Kay and Michael reflect back on the first days of their courtship, and Kay’s dawning awareness of the Corleone empire. Eventually, Michael takes Kay to the house where he lived while courting Simonetta, as if trying to converge Kay and Simonetta, and thereby square the circle between the Italian and American parts of his story, between being Italian and being Italian-American.
This tremulous day trip feels like the very cusp at which the Mafia project of repatriation should close the gap between Italy and America, especially when Michael and Kay stumble ona village wedding that prefigures the images of Cavalleria Rusticana, which they watch that same night. Here, finally, the Mafia seems to have fulfilled its promise of restoring homeland to Italian-American immigrants, turning the Palermo opera house into the site where the spectacular apparatus of the trilogy coincides with the nostalgic architecture that the Vito Corleone Foundation is attempting to preserve. For a fleeting moment, the film, and Michael himself, do achieve this aching fantasy, as Tony’s voice rings out from backstage for the opera prologue – a disembodied musical rendition of authentic Italian identity that no longer bears any taint of the Italian-American criminal enterprise that provided the operatic role to begin with. As the audience watch the lost object of Mafia nostalgia unfold before their eyes, Coppola reimagines Cavalleria Rusticana as a myth of origins about the Mafia itself, promising to provide us with the same catharsis and closure as when the opera comes to a conclusion.
As Cavalleria recapitulates the narrative sweep of the Godfather trilogy and translates it into operatic language, Coppola hones in on Michael, Kay and the Corleone family, who are sitting in the largest and most ornate booth, directly opposite the stage. Between the booth and the stage, between the audience and performance, and between the Corleones watching and the Corleone performing, the Mafia communes and commingles with its nostalgic fantasies of Sicilian homeland, in one of the greatest set pieces in Coppola’s entire career, and arguably the greatest set piece in the Godfather trilogy itself. Here, finally, the trilogy reveals itself for what it has always been – an ancestor of the great Italian operas of the mid-late 19th-century, the period which also set the great waves of Italian immigration to the United States in motion. Suffused with melodrama, pathos and braggadocio, this operatic interpolation of Coppola’s films climaxes as the actors uncover the figure of Christ on stage, and the Catholic and Mafia lexicon of the trilogy converge on an unbearable, revelatory longing for homeland.
This fantasy is so unbearably beautiful that it can’t possibly hold, but the return of Mafia reality after the show still feels unbearable as well. We get a hint of what’s to come when Michael congratulates Tony, only for Tony to remind him that he’s still pronouncing “Cavalleria” with the wrong emphasis – in other words, with an Italian-American emphasis, rather than a proper Italian emphasis, despite the fact that they are both ensconced in the middle of Sicily. But the real trauma comes a moment later, when Michael’s enemies try to gun him down on the steps of the opera house, only to kill Mary, who dies almost immediately, while Kay screams in anguish and Michael drools and rants in pain, delirious and oblivious to the crowd as it scatters around him. For a moment, the Mafia almost achieves its fantasy of fusing criminal and biological family in the name of a new homeland horizon – and yet Coppola suggests that the closer the Mafia family comes to this fantasy, the more traumatically that fantasy must be ruptured, as occurs in the iconic final shot in The Sopranos.
While the ending of The Godfather III doesn’t occupy that cusp between fantasy and reality quite as vividly as “Made In America,” the last Sopranos episode, Michael and Kay’s trauma effectively dissociates the rest of the narrative here. Eliding the rest of Michael’s life, Coppola ends with the moments before Michael’s death, which occurs quite simply and blandly – falling off a chair, in what appears to be a heart attack, a stroke, or just the aged body giving way to nature. Notably, this final scene also appears to take place in Sicily, in a rustic and bucolic setting, with stone houses, vineyards and pastoral landscapes in the background. Finally, Italy has been restored, but at the expense of everything else in Michael’s life, which is to say Italy has only been restored as a fantasy, albeit a purely formal fantasy, devoid of plausibility or meaning – and it is the fate of that fantasy, in both Mafia communities and Italian-American communities more generally, that fixates this incredible end to the trilogy, while also providing the motor engine for the pilot of The Sopranos just under a decade later.