I'm a sucker for any movies about religious figures—except for the ones directed by Ingemar Bergman, whose morose perambulations through the Swedish psyche usually make me head for the nearest …
I'm a sucker for any movies about religious figures—except for the ones directed by Ingemar Bergman, whose morose perambulations through the Swedish psyche usually make me head for the nearest straight-edge razor for a bout with my wrist.
I don't know how my affection began but I suspect it was in grade school when my pals and I watched a docudrama about Polish Cardinal Mindszenty, played by Alec Guinness and his battle with the Russians who had just taken over Poland. And so it went. I endured Bing Crosby movies about priests, Spencer Tracy movies about priests, Pat O'Brien's movies about priests, until later in life I marveled about the gritty honesty of movies like “True Confessions,” based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, starring Robert de Niro as an up-and-coming priest and Robert Duvall as his brother, an L.A. cop who discovers corruption in the diocese.
Closer to home is Minnesota's Jon Hassler, whose “Staggerford” novel teems with priests as does his St. John University colleague’s, J.F. Powers (“Morte d'Urban, Wheat that Springeth Green.” Only one of Hassler's novels was turned into a movie, when Angela Lansbury purchased Jon's “A Green Journey” and turned it into a TV movie called “The Love She Sought,” one of the dumbest titles in the history of the cinema. Good movie. You might not spot the priest right away, though.
This confession all leads to our family's recent exposure to movies on TV, which leads us to some surprising conclusions about what makes a good “priest movie.” And, conversely, what does not.
As we survived, barely, through the pandemic, we watched lots and lots of TV. We soon sickened of TV networks’ sublime pap and turned to special channel offerings. One such was Netflix, which provided us with foreign films with English subtitles. Recently, it advertised one of its own movies, “The Two Popes.” But we figured no, we've had enough pie in the sky movies like “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” More about that, later.
Only a few nights later, however, when our 100 channels revealed nada, nothing, zip, we turned in desperation to “The Two Popes,” which is a docudrama filmed at Castel Gandolfo and St. Peter's, telling the story of Pope Benedict's rise to power, and his fall, as well as the ascension of his successor, Pope Francis. Two more opposite characters could not have sustained a riveting hour and a half movie, except for the casting director's brilliant choices. The magnificent Anthony Hopkins plays the crabby constipated Pope Benedict and the always underrated, but great, Jonathan Pryce does Francis, the mild-mannered liberal voice of the people, Argentinian Pope Francis.
Despite their differences (Benedict won't eat meals in anyone else's presence: Francis prefers pizza from a joint around the corner from the Vatican). Benedict prefers to speak in Latin; Francis can't because he's never adequately learned it. Benedict sits at his concert grand and noodles a bit of German Lieder. Francis just whistles…
“What's that tune?” Asks Benedict.
“That's 'Dancing Queen,'” (a pop song by ABBA) replied the good-natured Francis, who seems never to tie his shoelaces, which the impeccably dressed Benedict never fails to mention.
Anyway, after several such encounters, the two popes grow to know each other and appreciate their points of view. Benedict learns to like pizza and soccer on TV. My wife and I were stunned at the subtlety of Hopkins' and Pryce's performances. If underacting is a ticket to Thespian heaven, these two products of Wales are bound for the stage Up There.
We marveled at our Saturday night discovery and on the following Sunday just for comparison's sake tuned into TCM to watch an old papal War Horse, “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” which we viewed with some distaste back in 1968, when it came out.
Perhaps you remember it. It's a typical Hollywood sagatacular, which runs for two and a half hours (replete with opening overture and Entre'acte music) and tells the story of Cyril, a Ukrainian dissident who has been sent to Siberia and later released to infiltrate the College of Cardinals, so he can give the Russians information about what's going on in the Vatican. That, of course, is accomplished in a film minute and Cardinal Cyril finds himself on the inside looking out.
You may wonder about this man called Cyril. As we did. He's a fictional character who never existed. As you might expect he's also a superman, who charms the birds, atheists and oregano plants at Castel Gandolfo out of trees. As soon as he's elected pope, China makes noises about starting a nuclear war because its minions are starving. No way, says Cyril; instead of starting a nuclear war, let us give you all the food you need during this terrible period. “How will you finance this food giveaway?” ask the Chinese.
“All of the riches of the Holy Church, its properties its jewelry, its art—all will be spent on your well-being. It's better for everyone to be fed than a few to be rich.” Hordes in St. Peter's Square roar their approval.
See what I mean? Hollywood figured to sell the story, they'd have to jazz it up with a starstudded cast. Sir Lawrence Olivier showed off his dialectical “genius” as the Russian strategist. Anthony Quinn played the Pope, which caused critics to call him ''Pope Zorba.'' The usually reliable David Janssen was terribly miscast as a U.S. TV newsman who somehow didn't belong in this Holy of Holies, as he tripped down the Steps of St. Peters. And Quinn, no matter how they trimmed his hair, couldn't help looking like a Bowery tough crossed with an Apache dancer. Looking back on “The Two Popes,” we could only conclude that a movie about Popes needn't be all Pomp and Sustenance. Yes, sustenance. Don't forget those starving Chinese.
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