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WHEN DON Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) was told about the depraved carnal activities of a movie mogul in "The Godfather," he shook his head and whispered through his swollen jowls that they constituted "an infamia" -- a disgrace but, more than a disgrace, a horror.

"The Godfather, Part III" is an infamia. It is a movie that never should have been made.

There are inarguable artistic reasons why Shakespeare never wrote a "Macbeth II" and Sophocles didn't follow up "Oedipus Rex" and "Oedipus at Colonnus" with "Oedipus III: The Afterlife."

The fratricide that ended "The Godfather, Part II" 16 years ago is one of the most powerful and utterly final denouements in the history of American movies -- the terrible, tragic result of an unbridled Sicilian sense of vendetta and an equally unbridled but eminently American misconstruction of all life as business.

A naive and avid member of the audience might want the Corleone saga continued. But to a great and entirely confident artist, the only possible sequel to that ending would have been silence.

The very existence, then, of a "Godfather III" is contemporary Hollywood's sequel syndrome at its most barren and awesomely destructive. To turn the "Godfather" films -- one of the noblest and grandest enterprises in the history of American movies -- into the equivalent of the "Rocky" story or "Friday the 13th" cartooning was an act of calumny.

Why they did it is certainly clear enough. It is a $58 million marketing move. In fact, the marketing strategy of Paramount Studios was that Tuesday's opening of "The Godfather, Part III" is not just a movie but an event.

It is not. No matter how many millions of people have high hopes for it, it is merely a movie, and a rather long and mediocre one at that. (For its first 90 minutes, in fact, its largo tempos and hopelessly derivative recapitulation make it close to unendurable.)

That some media bought into the marketing strategy so eagerly is yet another reflection of the tragic hothouse atmosphere of modern American moviemaking -- with its floridly artificial blooms and gushing floods of hopeful hyperbole in response.

No one with much movie savvy really looked forward to "The Godfather, Part III." Francis Ford Coppola has not been the same director since "Apocalypse Now." Persistent Hollywood rumors and published reports have hinted darkly that substance abuse destroyed the strong neuron connections necessary for rock-solid cinematic coherence, much less those necessary for the huge physical and mental exertions of epic moviemaking.

In addition, Coppola suffered in the '80s the greatest personal tragedy an otherwise healthy and prosperous man can suffer -- the death of a child. (His son Giancarlo was killed in a boating accident in the company of the once-horrifically troubled son of Ryan O'Neal.)

That "The Godfather, Part III" works up any grandeur at all -- and, please believe me, it does, in its final 45 minutes -- is a tribute to the luridly baroque plotting of Coppola and Mario Puzo and the fierce and apparently ineradicable residue of artistic honor still left inside Coppola. (It isn't his spirit that's weak, that's for certain.)

The first two films used up all of Puzo's original material from the novel. The characters Puzo had originally written to move swiftly through a first-rate pulp page-turner, Coppola turned into a family with tragic flaws moving slowly through lighting that might have been devised by Carvaggio or de la Tour.

The festive opening of "Godfather III" is such an inept paraphrase of the opening wedding of the first "Godfather" that it almost seems as if it were made as an hommage by a USC film student -- or Brian De Palma. Except for the performances of Al Pacino and Andy Garcia, there is very little in the film's first 90 minutes that doesn't seem like an empty recapitulation of the originals.

At least half of the great movies have melodramatic tabloid plots. The one that Puzo and Coppola have hatched for "Godfather III" is part New York Post, part Dickens and part Richard Condon.

For those who don't know, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has taken the family business into total legitimacy as the film begins. In exchange for a $100 million gift to the Sicilian poor, he has been honored with a papal knighthood. "I prefer you when you were just a common Mafia hood," says ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton). "I don't hate you. I dread you."

His son wants to be an opera singer and his daughter is sweetness incarnate. And he is routinely elected Man of the Year by Italian American societies.

When a friendly archbishop in the Vatican Treasury asks Michael to secretly make up a $769 million shortfall, he negotiates a $600 million loan to the Vatican in exchange for controlling interest in a conglomerate that has the potential of being the largest in Europe. In the meantime, his old friends Joey Zaza (a John Gotti type played by Joe Mantegna) and Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) want him to share his new-found good fortune and offer them a pristine channel for money laundering.

As if that weren't enough to suck him back into the old family business, there is the hot-headed violence of Sonny's illegitimate son -- Andy Garcia, a good actor certain to register on the female flutter scale.

What follows are diabetic strokes, several orchestrated mob hits (including Pope John Paul I, no less) and a brilliant finale in which all the heaving conflicts are played out while Michael's son makes his operatic debut in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."

The ending is pure inspiration -- a close to breathtaking sequence in which a grandly operatic swirl of violent events is blended with grand opera. Films of opera, in fact, are probably what Coppola should be making.

With his stooped shoulders, gravelly whisper and skin the color of shirt cardboards, Pacino is powerful as the aging and sickly don. And Garcia is equally strong as the burgeoning don, as are Raf Vallone (yes, I thought he was dead, too) as Pope John Paul I and Talia Shire as Michael's newly invigorated sister.

The much-acknowledged casting catastrophe was Coppola's daughter Sofia in the role Winona Ryder had to abandon at the last minute because of illness. I like the way she looks -- like the vulnerable daughter of a rich Italian-American, not an actress -- but she is so far out of her acting depth that she is painful to watch in almost every scene. (She has as much business trying to vamp Andy Garcia as I would quarterbacking a Super Bowl team.)

But even so, for her final line in the film ("Dad," is all she says), the very fragility of her ineptitide gives it that much more power. And when you remember Coppola's life in the past decade, it is a film moment of terrifying impact.

Out of chaotic circumstance, diminution of powers and the unavoidable obstacles in making a film that should never have been made, Coppola had enough left somehow to contrive a final half-hour that dishonors neither him nor his great films. It's enough to make you want to shout, "Bravo."

The Godfather, Part III

Rating: * * *
Francis Ford Coppola's continuation of the Corleone saga. Starring Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire.

Rated R, opening Tuesday at the Market Arcade, Maple Ridge and Walden Galleria theaters.

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