In 1979, as Michael Corleone is approaching 60, he regrets his ruthless rise to power and is especially guilt-ridden for having his brother Fredo murdered. He has semi-retired from the Mafia, leaving management of the family business to Joey Zasa. Michael uses his tremendous wealth and power in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation via numerous charitable acts. Michael and Kay are divorced; their children, Anthony and Mary, live with Kay.
At a ceremony in St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, Michael is named a Commander of the Order of Saint Sebastian. At the reception, Anthony tells his father that he is leaving law school to become an opera singer. Kay supports his decision, but Michael asks Anthony to complete his law degree. Anthony refuses to adhere to his father's wishes. Michael and Kay have an uneasy reunion, in which Kay reveals that she and Anthony know the truth about Fredo's death.
Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone's illegitimate son with Lucy Mancini, arrives at the reception. He is embroiled in a feud with Zasa, who has involved the Corleone family in drug trafficking and turned Little Italy into a slum. Michael's sister, Connie, arranges a meeting between Vincent and Zasa. When Zasa calls Vincent a bastard, Vincent bites Zasa's ear. Vincent overpowers two hitmen sent to kill him and learns that Zasa was responsible. Michael, troubled by Vincent's fiery temper but impressed by his family loyalty, agrees to take him under his wing.
Knowing that Archbishop Gilday, head of the Vatican Bank, has accumulated a massive deficit, Michael offers the Bank $600 million in exchange for shares in Internazionale Immobiliare, an international real estate company, which would make him its largest single shareholder with six seats on the company's 13-member board. He makes a tender offer to buy the Vatican's 25% share in the company, which will give him controlling interest. Immobiliare's board quickly approve the offer, pending ratification by the Pope.
Don Altobello, an elderly New York Mafia boss and Connie's godfather, visits Michael, telling him that his old partners on the Commission want in on the Immobiliare deal. Michael wants the deal untainted by Mafia involvement and pays off the mob bosses from the sale of his Las Vegas holdings. Zasa receives nothing and, declaring Michael his enemy, storms out. Altobello follows Zasa, saying he will reason with him. Minutes later, a helicopter hovers outside the conference room and opens fire. Most of the bosses are killed, but Michael, Vincent, and Michael's bodyguard, Al Neri, escape.
In New York, Neri tells Michael that the surviving mob bosses made deals with Zasa. Believing Zasa lacks the mindset to mastermind the massacre, Michael is certain someone else was the mastermind. Michael forbids Vincent from killing Zasa, realizes that Altobello is the traitor, suffers a diabetic stroke, and is hospitalized. As Michael recuperates, Vincent and Mary begin a romantic relationship, while Neri and Connie give Vincent permission to retaliate against Zasa. During a street festival hosted by Zasa's Italian American civil rights group, Vincent kills Zasa. Michael berates Vincent for his actions and insists that Vincent end his relationship with Mary, explaining Vincent's involvement in the family's criminal enterprises endangers her life.
The family travels to Sicily for Anthony's operatic debut in Palermo at the Teatro Massimo. They stay with Don Tommasino, a long-time friend. Michael tells Vincent to convince Altobello of his desires to leave the Corleone family. Altobello introduces Vincent to Don Licio Lucchesi, a powerful Italian political figure and Immobiliare's chairman. Michael discovers that the Immobiliare deal is an elaborate swindle, conspired by Lucchesi, Archbishop Gilday, and Vatican accountant Frederick Keinszig. Michael visits Cardinal Lamberto, favored to become the next Pope, to discuss the deal. Lamberto persuades Michael to make his first confession in 30 years. Michael tearfully confesses that he ordered Fredo's murder, and Lamberto says Michael deserves to suffer but can be redeemed.
Altobello hires Mosca, a veteran hitman, to assassinate Michael. Mosca and his son, disguised as priests, kill Don Tommasino as he returns to his villa. While Michael and Kay tour Sicily, Michael asks for Kay's forgiveness, and they admit they still love each other. Michael receives word of Tommasino's death, and at the funeral vows never to sin again. After the Pope dies, Cardinal Lamberto is elected as Pope John Paul I, and the Immobiliare deal is to be ratified. The plotters against the ratification attempt to cover their tracks. Vincent tells Michael that Altobello is plotting to have Mosca assassinate Michael. Michael sees that his nephew is a changed man and names him the new Don of the Corleone family, telling him to adopt the Corleone name. Vincent ends his romance with Mary.
The family travels to Palermo to see Anthony's performance in Cavalleria rusticana, a tale of murderous revenge in a Sicilian setting. Meanwhile, Vincent exacts his revenge:Keinszig is abducted by Vincent's men, who smother and then hang him from a bridge, making his death look like suicide.
Don Altobello, at the opera, is given poisoned cannoli by Connie, who watches him die from her opera box.
Al Neri travels to the Vatican, where he shoots Archbishop Gilday.
Calò, Tommasino's former bodyguard, meets with Don Lucchesi at his office, claiming to bear a message from Michael. As he whispers the message, Calò stabs Lucchesi in the neck with his own spectacles.
After he approves the Immobiliare deal, the Pope is served poisoned tea by Archbishop Gilday and dies soon afterward. Mosca, armed with a sniper rifle, descends upon the opera house during Anthony's performance and kills three of Vincent's men, but is unable to shoot Michael. He then attempts to kill Michael outside the opera house, but unintentionally kills Mary. Vincent shoots him dead.
Michael remembers all the women he has lost as a montage of Mary, Kay, and Apollonia is shown. An elderly Michael sits alone in the garden of Don Tommasino's villa and suddenly slumps over in his chair, falling to the ground.
Coppola felt that the first two films had told the complete Corleone saga. In his audio commentary for Part II, he stated that only a dire financial situation caused by the failure of One from the Heart (1982) compelled him to take up Paramount's long-standing offer to make a third installment.
Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire reprised their roles from the first two films. According to Coppola's audio commentary on the film in The Godfather DVD Collection, Robert Duvall refused to take part unless he was paid a salary comparable to Pacino's. On an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Duvall said he understood that Pacino was the star but felt insulted by the difference in their salaries, saying: "if they paid Pacino twice what they paid me, that's fine, but not three or four times, which is what they did." When Duvall dropped out, Coppola rewrote the screenplay to portray Tom Hagen as having died before the story begins and created the character B.J. Harrison, played by George Hamilton, to replace the Hagen character in the story. Coppola stated that, to him, the movie feels incomplete "without [Robert] Duvall's participation". According to Coppola, had Duvall agreed to take part in the film, the Hagen character would have been heavily involved in running the Corleone charities. Duvall confirmed in a 2010 interview that he never regretted the decision of turning down his role.
The first draft of a script had been written by Dean Riesner in 1979, based on a story by Mario Puzo. This script centered around Michael Corleone's son, Anthony, a naval officer working for the CIA, and the Corleone family's involvement with a plot to assassinate a Central American dictator. Almost none of the elements of this early script carried over to the final film, but one scene from the film – in which two men break into Vincent's house – exists in the Riesner draft and is nearly unchanged.
Coppola says that he felt The Godfather saga was essentially Michael's story, one about how "a good man becomes evil", that Michael had not really "paid for his sins" committed in the second film, and he wanted this final chapter to demonstrate that. In keeping with this theme, Coppola completely re-wrote the script.
Julia Roberts was originally cast as Mary but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Madonna wanted to play the role, but Coppola felt she was too old for the part. Rebecca Schaeffer was set to audition but was murdered. Winona Ryder dropped out of the film at the last minute. Ultimately Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter, was given the role of Michael Corleone's daughter. Her much-criticized performance resulted in her father's being accused of nepotism, a charge Coppola denies in the commentary track, asserting that, in his opinion, critics, "beginning with an article in Vanity Fair," were "using [my] daughter to attack me," something he finds ironic in light of the film's denouement when the Mary character pays the ultimate price for her father's sins.
As an infant, Sofia Coppola had played Michael Corleone's infant nephew in The Godfather, during the climactic baptism/murder montage at the end of that film. (Sofia Coppola also appeared in The Godfather Part II, as a small immigrant child in the scene where the nine-year-old Vito Corleone arrives by steamer at Ellis Island.) The character of Michael's sister Connie is played by Francis Ford Coppola's sister, Talia Shire (making her both Mary's aunt in the movie and Sofia's aunt in real life). Other Coppola relatives with cameos in the film included the director's mother, father (who wrote and conducted much of the music in the film), uncle, and granddaughter Gia. In addition, Coppola cast Catherine Scorsese, mother of Martin Scorsese, in a small part.
At Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 67% rating, based on reviews from 57 critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 60, based on 19 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews". Common criticisms have focused on Sofia Coppola's acting, the plot's convoluted nature, and its inadequacy as a "stand-alone" story.
In his review, Roger Ebert stated that it is "not even possible to understand this film without knowing the first two." Nonetheless, Ebert wrote an enthusiastic review, awarding the film three-and-a-half stars, a better rating than he gave The Godfather Part II in an earlier review. In his 2008 re-rating, he gave 4 stars for The Godfather Part II and included it in his list of Great Movies from which he excluded The Godfather Part III. He also defended the casting of Sofia Coppola, who he felt was not miscast, stating, "There is no way to predict what kind of performance Francis Ford Coppola might have obtained from Winona Ryder, the experienced and talented young actress, who was originally set to play this role. But I think Sofia Coppola brings a quality of her own to Mary Corleone. A certain up-front vulnerability and simplicity that I think are appropriate and right for the role."
Ebert's colleague, Gene Siskel, also highly praised the film and placed it on his list of the ten best films of 1990 (#10). Siskel admitted that the ending was the film's weakest part, citing Al Pacino's makeup as very poor. He also said, “[Another] problem is the casting of Sofia Coppola, who is out of her acting league here. She’s supposed to be Andy Garcia’s love interest but no sparks fly. He’s more like her babysitter.” In response to Ebert’s defense of Coppola, Siskel said: “I know what you’re saying about her being sort of natural and not the polished bombshell, and that would’ve been wrong. There is one, a photographer in the picture, who takes care of that role, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s explained why [Vincent] really comes onto her, unless this guy is the most venal, craven guy, but look who [sic] he’s playing around with. He’s playing around with the Godfather’s daughter.”
Leonard Maltin, giving the film three out of four stars, stated that the film is "masterfully told", but that casting Sofia Coppola was an "almost-fatal flaw."
Although reception to the film was mixed, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Andy García), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Dean Tavoularis, Gary Fettis), Best Music, Song (for Carmine Coppola and John Bettis for "Promise Me You'll Remember"). It is the only film in the series not to have Al Pacino nominated for an Academy Award (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather and for Best Actor for The Godfather Part II). It is the only film in the trilogy not to win for Best Picture or any other Academy Award for that matter, as well as the only film in the trilogy not selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry. Along with The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather Trilogy shares the distinction that all of its installments were nominated for Best Picture.
The film was also nominated for seven Golden Globes Awards, but did not win. Sofia Coppola won two Golden Raspberry Awards for both Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." – Nominated
Parts of the film are very loosely based on real historical events concerning the ending of the papacy of Pope Paul VI, the very short tenure of John Paul I in 1978, and the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in 1982. Like the character Cardinal Lamberto, who becomes John Paul I, the historical John Paul I, Albino Luciani, reigned for only a very short time before being found dead in his bed.
Journalist David Yallop argues that Luciani was planning a reform of Vatican finances and that he died by poisoning; these claims are reflected in the film. Yallop also names as a suspect Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who was the head of the Vatican bank, like the character Archbishop Gilday in the film. However, while Marcinkus was noted for his muscular physique and Chicago origins, Gilday is a mild Irishman. The character has also drawn comparisons to Cardinal Giuseppe Caprio, as he was in charge of the Vatican finances during the approximate period in which the movie was based.
The character of Frederick Keinszig, the Swiss banker who is murdered and left hanging under a bridge, mirrors the fate (and physical appearance) of Roberto Calvi, the Italian head of the Banco Ambrosiano who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982. (It was unclear whether it was suicide or murder. Courts in Italy have recently ruled the latter.) The name "Keinszig" is taken from Manuela Kleinszig, the girlfriend of Flavio Carbone who was indicted as one of Roberto Calvi's murderers in 2005.
The film's soundtrack received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Score. Also, the film's love theme, "Promise Me You'll Remember" (subtitled "Love Theme from The Godfather Part III") sung by Harry Connick, Jr., received Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Song.
Al Martino, who portrayed Johnny Fontane in The Godfather and The Godfather Part III, sings "To Each His Own".
Following the reaction to the third installment, Coppola stated that the idea of a fourth film was discussed but never went into production; Mario Puzo died before they were able to write the film. Puzo and Coppola had discussed a potential script, told in a similar narrative to Part II, which would have featured: De Niro reprising his role as a younger Vito Corleone in the 1930s; a young Santino Corleone gaining the Corleone family's political power; Andy Garcia reprising his role as Vincent Corleone, during the 1980s, haunted by the death of his cousin Mary, running the family business through a ten-year destructive war, and eventually losing the family's respect and power; and one final scene with Michael Corleone before his death. Andy Garcia has since claimed the film's script was nearly produced. Leonardo DiCaprio was slated to portray a young Sonny Corleone.
Puzo's portion of the potential sequel, dealing with the Corleone family in the early 1930s, was eventually expanded into a novel by Edward Falco and published in 2012 as The Family Corleone. Paramount sued the Puzo estate to prevent publication of the novel, prompting a counter-suit on the part of the estate claiming breach of contract. The studio and the estate subsequently settled the suits, allowing publication of the book, but with the studio retaining rights to future films.