Popes on Film

News that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to hang up the red papal slippers sets the mind a-wandering. Who are the great popes of cinema? Oddly, this is a harder question to answer than you might think. For starters, there are many films that feature a pope at the edge of the action but very very few are actually about a pope. Also, the pope, though held in contempt in some quarters, gets a rather easy ride in the movies, possibly because so many Hollywood films were made by Jewish emigres with first hand experience of what can happen when religion is dragged into the foreground. Either way, popes and knuckle-whitening drama don’t seem to be a natural fit.

So here’s a list of popes on film – chosen for variety, if nothing else.

Habemus Papam (2001, dir: Nanni Moretti)

A detailed and fascinating view of the Catholic Church which weaves footage from John Paul II’s funeral into a story about a newly elected, doubt-plagued pope doing a bunk and going walkabout in Rome. It is not only beautifully acted (by Michel Piccoli) and brilliantly plotted but also hugely under-rated, possibly because Moretti ignored promptings to go for cliches and easy targets.

Habemus Papam – at Amazon

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968, dir: Michael Anderson)

A film from the 1960s about the 1980s which asked us to imagine the fantastic proposition of a man from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, in this case) being elected Pope. It happened of course, though the Pole Karel Wojtyla made it to the throne of St Peter as John Paul II in 1978, a little ahead of the faintly similarly named Kiril Lakota (played by Anthony Quinn) in this tortuously plotted if not downright dull biopic with small parts for actors of the calibre of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

The Shoes of the Fisherman – at Amazon

Pope Joan (1972, dir: Michael Anderson)

Here’s director Michael Anderson’s follow-up to The Shoes of the Fisherman, another film about a pope, this time the supposedly true story of the woman who dressed up in men’s clothes and ended up being elected pontiff. It’s a bit of a stretch, imagining that anyone could mistake Liv Ullmann for a man, but the plot ignores such problems as it cuts back and forth between the present day and a thousand years ago to present a twin-track drama that manages to bore across the millennium.

Pope Joan – at Amazon

The Pope Must Die (1991, dir: Peter Richardson)

An offshoot of Britain’s Comic Strip, a loose collection of comedic talent, this broad, loose and intermittently amusing farce sees the large-boned Robbie Coltrane playing the all too fallible priest accidentally elected to the top job in the Catholic Church. The idea of actually killing the pope, or even suggesting it in the title, was too much in some territories, where this film was renamed The Pope Must Diet. Come on, that’s a good “did you know”.

The Pope Must Die – at Amazon

Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

A cheeky attempt on my part to shoehorn in one of the outstanding films of the 1960s. The Pope, played here by Paolo Stoppa, does get a walk-on role, but the film is really a smackdown between Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, the “meddlesome priest”. Both actors are at their bellowing, titanic peak and they act out the powerplay between church and state as a kind of gay love story gone a bit skew-whiff. Camp as a hosepipe, entirely mesmerising.

Becket – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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