At the end of The Godfather: Part 3, capsule the conclusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic mafia trilogy, try a wizened, feeble Michael Corleone adjusts his sunglasses, slumps forward, and dies alone. He sits on a chair in dusty, barren surroundings, a reflection of his empty life. He has lost everything, and his death is the poignant end to his tumultous story arc. It is hard to believe that he was once the beady-eyed, hard-hearted fledgling Don who ordered hits on the heads of the five New York families. Al Pacino as Michael has been ravaged by time and callous circumstance, and having alienated everyone he loved, is left with nothing but fading memories.
American cinema has long illustrated the sorry plight of the antihero. From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, hideous but ultimately vulnerable people have blazed across our screens and seared themselves into our collective consciousness. For me, none is more devastating than the tale of Michael Corleone. In The Godfather, Michael returns home for his sister’s wedding. With fresh-faced girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton, his real-life girlfriend at the time) in tow, Michael is the archetypal ambitious college student. He shuns his family’s criminal leanings. After telling Kay about his father’s famous ‘offer he can’t refuse’ moment, he says, ‘That’s my father, not me.’ Sadly, fate has different plans in store for Michael. Following the death of his father and brother, it is his duty to become the boss of his family. Over the course of the trilogy, Michael transforms from educated, sensible young man to often volatile, calculating villain. This is perhaps most shockingly proven in the scene where Kay reveals to her husband that she has had an abortion. To see Pacino’s face twist into a mask of unbridled rage is to be stricken with terror. He hits Kay so hard that she falls back onto the couch. Domestic abuse is a taboo, and often leaves us feeling uncomfortable, so to see Michael hit his wife is despicable and unnverving. Kay is us: appalled at what Michael as become, her naivety quickly seeps away when she realises that ‘this Sicilian thing’ is bigger than she can ever hope to comprehend.
One of the more heartbreaking moments in the saga is when Michael learns of his older brother, the inept Fredo’s betrayal. ‘You broke my heart, Fredo. You broke my heart,’ he tells him. At this point in the narrative, it is hard to believe that Michael still has a functioning heart, but it is worth remembering that although he can behave monstrously, his family is deeply ingrained in his heart. He has Fredo murdered in the grand gangster tradition. As we see the silhouette of Fredo crumple in a fishing boat, we are reminded again of how ruthless Michael is forced to be in his difficult role. The third film has been widely criticised due to its sprawling, implausible plot and the painfully wooden acting of Sofia Coppola as Michael’s adult daughter, Mary. Indeed, she is proof of the negative impact of nepotism. Winona Ryder was originally considered for the role, and would no doubt have done a far superior job. However, Coppola serves as a point of internal conflict for Michael. She falls in love with Michael’s protegee, Vince Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son (played by Andy Garcia). Michael despairs at this incestuous liaision, unwilling to see his daughter dragged into this murky world. Although the film has obvious flaws, it does have the iconic cry of despair from Michael: ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ Oft-parodied, it is symbolic of Michael’s increasing weariness as he approaches old age.
Sofia may be a weak actress, but when she is shot and collapses at Michael’s feet, his agony is almost unbearable to watch. Pacino slumps and lets out a ragged, silent scream. His pain and grief are etched deep in the lines of his face as he clutches his dead daughter. After everything he has done, all the sacrifices he had made, he is now an ageing man who has witnessed the accidental murder of his daughter. It highlights the futility of everything he has worked for, and leaves Michael a desolate and broken man.
The final scenes of this film cannot be watched with dry eyes. To the accompaniment of the beautiful, soaring Intermezzo, we see a montage of the stages of Michael’s life. He dances with Mary, with his Sicilian wife, with Kay. We see him go from an old man, to a young man, to an old man once more. It is not clear where his final resting place is, but from the blazing sun, it is perhaps Sicily, where his father Vito escaped from all those years previously. It is reminiscent of Michael’s father’s death in the garden. Vito, though, had a more fitting end. His legacy was secure. Michael’s legacy, meanwhile, lies in tatters. He sacrificed a normal life for one of bloodshed and the decay of the soul, and that is the ultimate tragedy of Michael Corleone.
Written by Caitriona O’Malley