He's bearded, he's got a big belly and he's coming on Christmas Day -- and this year that means Francis Ford Coppola, whose "The Godfather, Part III" opens Tuesday. And for the first time in about a decade and a half, Hollywood is full of people who'd like Santa to bring Coppola a hit. The director has made unsuccessful movies and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for so long now that whatever ill will was created by his early success has long since evaporated.

Still, that doesn't mean the "Godfather" name, plus a batch of what clearly will be mixed reviews, will be enough to coax moviegoers into theaters in a year when sequels to those other highly acclaimed early '70s movies, "The Last Picture Show" and "Chinatown" (neither of them, admittedly, as much a phenomenon as the first two "Godfather" films), both bombed. Neither is it necessarily a heavyweight Academy Award contender: It wasn't helped by the fact that it was ignored in the voting by the Los Angeles and the New York film critics associations when they both gave their best-picture awards to "GoodFellas" this week. Good feelings in the film community will probably ensure a better showing when the Motion Picture Academy votes for its nominations, but beyond a few shoo-ins -- cinematography, editing and Andy Garcia for best actor or supporting actor, depending on how he's perceived and/or promoted -- the movie doesn't have the strength of the current front-runners -- which, for now, seem to be "GoodFellas," "Dances With Wolves" and "Awakenings." The first two are sure things, the last one a probable contender whose strength is subject to change after its release.

Whatever moviegoers and the academy think, one group is bound to hate "Godfather III." Coppola's treatment of the Catholic Church had preview guests buzzing after the screenings, because his movie can be viewed as the most pointed attack on the church in recent memory. In it, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tries to go legitimate by divesting himself of all gambling interests and trying to strike a legal and enormously lucrative business deal with the Vatican bank; when he does so, he finds that the upper reaches of the Vatican are more corrupt than the Mafia in New York City. Coppola sets the action against a well-known bit of recent history, and names names. When Michael learns just how corrupt the church is, he turns to a trustworthy cardinal, who counsels the repentant Mafioso, hears his confession, and is subsequently elected Pope John Paul I. But after only a month in office, during which time he seems to be virtually the only honest man in the Vatican, the new pope dies in his sleep, poisoned by a cardinal who's in league with a top mobster. The real Pope John Paul I, of course, died in his sleep a month after he assumed the papacy -- and this happened in 1979, the year in which Coppola set his movie. The director, by the way, was raised Catholic.

Short Takes

None of the big holiday movies is making much of a dent in the remarkable business being done by "Home Alone." Of last weekend's newcomers, "Look Who's Talking Too" did reasonably well, but fell $3.5 million short of "Home Alone" in total grosses, and, crucially, $600 short in per-screen average. "Edward Scissorhands," on the other hand, went nationwide with a better average than "Home Alone," but wasn't in enough theaters to challenge it in overall take. The teaming of Cher and Winona Ryder in "Mermaids," meanwhile, was a clear disappointment at the box office, while the Sydney Pollack film "Havana," starring Robert Redford, did even more poorly ... And finally, reaction is divided on whether it does justice to the Bard, but Franco Zeffirelli's version of "Hamlet" is helping to rebuild the Globe Theatre, the London stage that Shakespeare co-owned until it was destroyed by fire in 1613. A benefit premiere showing of the new "Hamlet," starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, was held in Los Angeles this week to raise money for the reconstruction of the Globe. Organizers hope it'll bring in as much as $1 million to help the project, which won't be completed for at least two more years.