(This post contains spoilers for The Godfather III and The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.)
Repentance, forgiveness, and absolution are the prevalent themes in Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edited and remastered The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, released in December of 2020. While Michael can never truly escape his past sins, Coppola achieves redemption with a much more cohesive conclusion to his Corleone saga.
When The Godfather Part III was released in 1990, audiences and critics alike were confused and underwhelmed by a convoluted plot involving the Vatican, church politics, a multi-national conglomerate, a bloated run-time, and an unsatisfying ending. It lacked the magic of the first two and felt like just another cash grab for a greedy studio bereft of original content.
Paramount pressured Coppola into releasing a film that didn’t measure up to the standard set by the previous two. The multi-Oscar-winning director and writer went through 18 scripts, and numerous casting changes as the studio forced him to meet a Christmas 1990 deadline. Coppola had never felt the need to make another Godfather movie, but the powers that be coerced him with threats that someone else would oversee it and the lure of money he desperately needed. This backstory gives new weight to the film’s most famous line, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Now, 30 years later, and in complete creative control, Coppola has streamlined the movie and produced a proper coda to Michael Corleone’s story. The new cut lays bare the struggle of Michael’s quest in truly making his family business legitimate and the remorse and grief he carries over his actions in trying to achieve that goal.
The Godfather Coda introduces us to a Michael who, while he is still the powerful Don Corleone, has softened a bit. He remains a calculating and smart businessman but also appears ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with new threats in his quest for legitimacy. He often doesn’t have the upper hand and lacks the clout to make offers that others can’t refuse.
Michael has also relented some of the influence he once held over his famiglia. He has ceded control of illegitimate enterprises to a low-level gangster named Joey Zasa. He allows his son Anthony to defy his wishes to become a lawyer and pursue his dreams of being an opera singer and welcomes Sonny’s illegitimate son, Vincent, into the family business.
Andy Garcia’s performance as Vincent is a standout and has a more clearly defined character arc in the re-edit. He begins as a hotheaded clone of his father – he even mimics James Caan’s fist biting to control his temper – but ends as a cool, level-headed shadow of his grandfather. Michael has a soft spot for Sonny’s child, instilling him with Vito’s lessons while tacitly condoning his relationship with his daughter Mary, Vincent’s first cousin.
Michael never wanted to live his father’s life of crime, but a part of himself believes that it would justify all of his actions once his family became legitimate. He seeks forgiveness from his ex-wife Kay in one of the film’s many emotional scenes, and she briefly grants it, until moments later when she realizes that Michael will never ultimately be free of the life he chose.
The one sin that Michael believes he will not be forgiven of, however, is killing his brother Fredo. He has carried this weight throughout his life and is tormented by it. He is haunted by Fredo’s ghost and feels he cannot repent, and as a priest tells him, “Your sins are terrible…you will not change” Michael can only bow his head in shame.
Therein lies the crux of The Godfather Coda. Michael’s every action has been for his family, even as he tears it apart. His life of crime provided wealth and status for the Corleone’s while simultaneously taking everyone he ever loved from him. Michael’s death knell truly begins with the line in The Godfather II, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
The final bell tolls for Michael as his beloved daughter Mary dies from a bullet meant for him. The film’s new edit reveals Al Pacino’s concluding portrayal of the character that made him a household name as one of his greatest. When he holds Mary’s limp body in his hands, his howls of pure anguish are harrowing. So much so that Coppola decided to let Michael scream in silence, with only the score playing, until a final few seconds when his cries are at full volume making his grief tangible.
Michael Corleone ostensibly died the night his daughter was killed, and Coppola’s decision to change the ending makes this fact undeniable. Instead of mirroring Michael’s death with Vito’s as in the original version, we see him years later, alone, seemingly blind, and enfeebled.
Mary died for the sins of her father. Once again, his desire to better his family led to despair and death. A life he was fated to live and could not escape was one that would ultimately be irredeemable and filled with tragedy.
While Michael Corleone ultimately could not be forgiven or absolved of the decisions he felt he had to make, The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone repents the original version’s sins and vindicates Coppola’s real vision of how he wanted the Godfather saga to conclude.
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