It is easy for those of us watching the Godfather series on DVD to forget that Part III was released almost two decades after the phenomenally successful Parts I & II (in 1990). Apart from Hollywoood’s usual goal of wringing every last cent from a successful film franchise, the third film intends to be both a celebration of the earlier films and a wrap up of the life of ‘the Godfather’, Michael Corleone. It is generally considered to be the poor cousin of its predecessors and, indeed, it lacks something of their originality, complexity and compelling tension. It also falls short in terms of the depth of the caste. Gone are Brando and DeNiro (with Vito Corleone dead) and Robert Duval’s Tom Hagin is replaced with a forgetable lawyer. All that is left of the original is Pacino and Keaton, who are both excellent, but whose relationship is difficult to fathom. Apart from Andy Garcia, who plays Sonny’s son Vincent (the next generation Godfather), the remainder of the supporting caste are relatively bland, and the movie focuses almost exclusively on the Pacino’s Michael. This is not to say that it is a bad film. Apart from the fact that anyone who has seen Parts I & II will be compelled to see the story through to its conclusion, it remains a well scripted character study, and one that takes us thematically forward; moving beyond analysis of the ambiguity of evil to a reflection on the possibility of redemption.
Set in 1979, as Corleone nears retirement, the film narrates his struggle to leave his family with the legacy of a respectable and legal business empire. On the surface the Godfather has accomplished the American dream, living in opulence and receiving the adulation of his society and the church. The problem, however, is that the past is not so easy to leave behind – as Michael observes, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in”. Evil has a way of embedding itself, of working its way into the connections of family and visiting its punishments ‘to the third and fourth generation’ (Deut. 5:9). Thus, notwithstanding his wealth and power, Michael has become a tragic figure. His mafia ‘colleagues’, friends and enemies alike, will not let him escape. More significantly, his family life is in crises. In his own mind, everything he has done has been for his wife and children. But his ex-wife ‘dreads’ him. His son wants nothing to do with him – “I will
always be your son, but I will never have anything to do with your business”. The only bright spot is the love of his daughter, but he finds himself forced to lie to and manipulate her – for her own protection. Reflecting on his life at the funeral of a friend, he notes
- You were so loved, Don Tommasino. Why was I so feared, and you so loved? What was it? I was no less honorable. I wanted to do good. What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.”
This longing for redemption starts with a $700 million gift to the Catholic church, but he soon discovers, not only that the “higher I go, the crookeder it becomes” (a sad indictment on a church corrupted by wealth and power), but that salvation cannot be purchased, that nothing he can give is sufficient to redeem and protect either himself or his family. The subsequent exchange between the Godfather and Cardinal Lamberto (the one righteous priest in the film) is worth recording in full:
- Cardinal Lamberto: Would you like to make your confession? Michael Corleone: Your eminence, I… it’s been so long… 30 years. I’d use up too much of your time. Cardinal Lamberto: I always have time to save souls. Michael Corleone: Well… I am beyond redemption. Cardinal Lamberto: I hear my own priests’ confessions here. The urge to confess can be overwhelming. Michael Corleone: What is the point of confessing if I do not repent? Cardinal Lamberto: I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose, eh? Michael Corleone: I… I betrayed my wife. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son. Michael Corleone: I betrayed myself. I killed men, and ordered men to be killed. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son, go on. Michael Corleone: I… ah, it’s useless. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son. Michael Corleone: [choking up] I ordered the death of my brother. He injured me. [sobbing] I killed my father’s son. I killed my father’s son! Cardinal Lamberto: Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.
As a Christian viewer, you would like to believe that there is some sort of healing in this confession. Protestants might reject the ‘catholic’ nature of the confession, and decry the fact that the priest does not offer grace freely – that he expects something from Corleone. But surely it is right that confession without change (without repentence) accomplishes nothing. Too often we pedal what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’ – grace without price. But while redemption is freely and graciously available to all, it has to be appropriated, as Bonhoeffer goes on to note, grace is costly – what cost God the life of the son cannot be cheap for us. Likewise, notwithstanding his confession, Corleone fails to repent – to change, and so he misses out on the redemption that is in fact available to him.
Thus, the film moves relentlessly toward what is one of the saddest conclusions of a Hollywood film ever. More then the dramatic and brilliantly acted climactic penultimate scene (which i shall not spoil) is the tragedy of Corleone, finally an old man, dying alone on a chair in the dirt of sicily. Whatever the flaws of this film, for Christian audiences it stands as a profound reminder of the need for redemption and the true significance of the gospel.