WHY has Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious ``Godfather'' saga had such a special hold on moviegoers, beginning with ``The Godfather'' in 1972 - and picking up even more steam when ``The Godfather Part II'' arrived in 1974? The answer lies largely in the ingenious blend of elements that Mr. Coppola and his colleague, writer Mario Puzo, stirred into the first two installments of their tale. A key ingedient is the theme of power, a subject that has fascinated audiences as long as stories have been told. In the first ``Godfather,'' the center of power is a single man, Vito Corelone, indelibly played by Marlon Brando; in ``Godfather II,'' the study of power is extended beyond his clan into the business and political realms, which are shown to have much in common with the world of organized crime.
Related to this is the theme of corruption, and the challenge of fending it off (or yielding to it) in morally and emotionally complex circumstances, and the nature of the immigrant experience, with old and primal power structures making their way into a new and unprepared society.
Most important of all is the theme implied by the title of the saga. This is a story about a family; and the tribulations faced by the Corleone clan (focused on issues of loyalty, affection, obedience, duty) are those of any family unit, writ large and dramatized with uncommon force. Moviegoers see their own feelings and situations echoed in the ``Godfather'' myths of the 1970s - echoed not with everyday realism, of course, but in an exaggerated and emotionally supercharged form that packs the wallop of a vivid, unforgettable dream.
All these elements are present in ``The Godfather Part III,'' the long-awaited conclusion to the saga. Missing, however, are two more factors that stitched together the issues of power, corruption, and family in the first two chapters: first-rate acting and filmmaking.
``Godfather III'' plunges into the same themes as its predecessors and revives a number of familiar characters and plot maneuvers. But the energy is fitful; the performances are terribly uneven; and at times the whole enterprise seems to be going through the motions out of habit, not conviction. I'm sure Coppola still cares a great deal about the crowded and colorful story that established him as one of the most important young directors of the '70s. But its time in his career, and in the continuing annals of American moviemaking, has clearly passed.
``Godfather III'' revolves around the ambivalent relationship between Michael Corleone, the dynastic heir of Don Vito, and Vincent Mancici, the illegimate son of Michael's late brother. Other main characters include Michael's exwife, Kay, back in his life after an absence of almost 10 years; and Michael's sister, Connie, also a fixture of both earlier ``Godfather'' chapters.
In an effort In trying to make this episode fresh and surprising, Coppola and company have pegged the story to a Vatican banking crisis in which the Corleone family has a financial interest; this allows the screenplay to digress from the central plot to such matters as the election of Pope John Paul II and the possibility of a scheme against his life. Equally important is a more commonplace story line about Vincent's ambiguous place within the Corleone clan, and particularly his courtship of Michael's daughter, Mary, which gets her father predictably riled. Running throughout the film is Michael's obsession with becoming ``legitimate'' and the way this is blocked by his past, his personality, and his never-satisfied hunger for control.
There's nothing wrong with these plots and subplots as raw material for a ``Godfather'' installment. The trouble with ``Godfather III'' arises not from the story but from how it's handled - in a choppy, disjointed way that's quite surprising from the filmmaker who blended two very different plot-threads into the seamless web of ``Godfather II,'' which alternated between Don Vito's early power grabs and Michael's later consolidation of the Corleone empire.
Successful scenes in ``Godfather III'' lose their momentum when dull, superfluous episodes intervene, and the climax - moments of intrigue and violence punctuated with scenes of an opera performance - falls remarkably flat. There are plenty of effective moments in the film, but they're not consistent enough to engross an audience for nearly three hours.
WEAK acting causes even more problems. Al Pacino became almost legendary for his first two ``Godfather'' performances, but his intermittent efforts to build a Lear-like pathos in ``Godfather III'' work only at isolated moments, mainly in scenes of stress and illness that present him with a clearly defined physical challenge.
Andy Garcia, one of the ablest young actors in Hollywood, is saddled with a role (Mancici) that calls for him to change from a feral, streetwise punk into a forceful and dignified adult - all without a shred of motivation or explanation as to how and why the transformation is taking place. Saddest of all is Sofia Coppola, the director's teenage daughter, who is utterly out of her depth as Mary. and should never have been called on to handle such an important part.
This isn't to say ``Godfather III'' is without redeeming value. Some of the secondary parts are outstandingly played by consummate performers such as Eli Wallach as an aging Mafia don, and Joe Mantegna as a cocky Corleone enemy.