Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Potpourri of Papal Piffle

So at the moment we are popeless. As of last Friday, Benedict XVI was handing over the reins of power and flying off to the world’s cushiest retirement home. Now it remains for a covey of cardinals to meet in the Sistine Chapel and – beneath Michelangelo’s magnificent renderings of God and man – elect the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.

I’ve got to hand it to the Catholics: they’ve got a genius for organizing spectacles. There’s high drama in the fancy vestments, the burning of ballots after each secret vote, the puff of white smoke that signals when a consensus has been reached. Add to all that the jubilant tolling of the Vatican bells and the emergence of the new pontiff on a balcony high above the cast of thousands assembled to greet him in St. Peter’s Square. Sounds like a movie to me.

Actually, I’ve never been much for religious flicks. And I can’t think of too many that have the papacy at their center. The first that comes to mind is The Shoes of the Fisherman, a 1968 cold war epic in which Anthony Quinn is unexpectedly chosen as the first Slavic pope, in order to head off a doomsday scenario involving Russia, China, and some stray nukes. Of course he questions his faith and suffers a lot. So does Tom Tryon in The Cardinal, another big Sixties movie in which an earnest American priest faces up to virtually every social challenge of his day, from celibacy to race relations to the  Church’s dealings with the Third Reich. (Remarkably, the Vatican’s official liaison officer for The Cardinal was Joseph Ratzinger, who now of course is The Cleric Formerly Known as Pope.)

From 1965, there’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, based on Irving Stone’s ponderous but popular novel about the painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Charlton Heston (who else?) is an intense Michelangelo, opposite Rex Harrison’s foxy Pope Julius II. In Becket (1964) the main conflict is between England’s King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), once a drinking pal but now taking all too seriously his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. At one point, Becket makes a quick trip to Rome, where he fails to persuade the Holy Pontiff to release him from his office. This brief Vatican visit plays out on a sumptuous set that got a second airing when Roger Corman – filming at London’s Elstree Studio – used it to represent the interior of Prince Prospero’s doomed castle in The Masque of the Red Death.

Though Roger Corman was born a Catholic, he’s not one to be overawed by the majesty of the Church. When he considered filming a World War II drama, The Spy in the Vatican, he instructed an assistant to get the Pope on the phone and arrange for a few weeks of shooting in Vatican City. Over her protests that the Pontiff and his staff might not cotton to this plan, Roger calmly advised her to “tell them I’m a registered Catholic.” He also pooh-poohed her fears that the Vatican might be displeased with the existing script’s slant on the role of the Church in World War II.  Said Roger, “In that case, we will make up a script to send them.” (Needless to say, it didn’t work.) 

As for me, I’m most impressed with the new Pope Emeritus having traded in his spiffy red shoes for everyday brown ones. I suspect that giving up the ruby slippers is never easy. Particularly if -- as you sometimes discover -- there’s no place like Rome. 


  1. I am with you - not a lot of time for religious or papal films. I will add 1987's Monsignor to your list - a Catholic Church meets the mob movie with a sorely miscast Christopher Reeve in the title role. Robbie Coltrane starred in an 80's or 90's British comedy called The Pope Must Die! When the film was brought over to America (for a direct-to-video release) the American distribution company feared the title would not sit well with an American people just beginning to flirt with PC - and so the film was retitled - but using only one extra letter. Noticing star Coltrane's less than svelte figues, the company crudely inserted onto all the film's publicity materials - one lone "t". Yes, over here, the film was called "The Pope Must Diet!"

  2. Really. The Pope Must Diet.

    And Monsignor was from 1982. I was mixing it up with some Christopher Lambert movie (I think) where he plays a priest battling the mob...or maybe I was thinking of Last Rites from 1987, where Tom Berenger plays a priest ducking his vows with Daphne Zuniga...

  3. There seem to be lots of troubled priests at the movies. Stanley Kramer's last film was "The Runner Stumbles," with (of all people) Dick Van Dyke in the leading role of a priest with big trouble on his hands. It was supposed to be Oskar Werner, but when he couldn't make it, Kramer opted to go with an unlikely choice. I haven't seen the film, but even Kramer's widow doesn't think it worked terribly well.