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Pope St John Paul II’s abilities as a playwright and actor were exhibited in his natural knack for taking the stage and captivating an audience. On the huge stage of the Vatican he was able to imbue each appearance with a sense of immediate and powerful significance. Given the colorful history and global impact of the papacy it’s hard to avoid the drama and drive that is woven into the office of the successor of Peter.
Struck by the underlying drama of the papacy (and being somewhat of a movie buff), I began to explore the portrayal of popes on film. Some of the world’s finest actors have donned the white soutane. The wonders of the internet mean you can click on my links to watch some of their performances. One of my favorites is the cameo performance here of Catholic convert Alec Guiness playing Pope Innocent III in Franco Zefirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Guiness brings his best Obi-Wan Kenobi mystique to the role.
Meanwhile you can goto watch fellow Englishman, John Gielgud, portray a suitably aristocratic and frosty Pius XII in conflict with the Nazis in The Scarlet and the Black. Most mainstream movie critics ignore the collection of other films about popes. Under Roman Sky was first broadcast as a TV mini series, and later re-packaged as a full length film. It is the drama of two young Jews in Rome—their love and their conflict with the Nazis. Pope Pius XII is portrayed sympathetically by American star James Cromwell. Watch the trailer . Like most of these films, Under Roman Sky is not a documentary about a pope as such, but a drama in which the pope is an important, but minor character.
In the TV mini series The Borgias,Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, the corrupt renaissance pope Alexander VI. The trailer is, but be warned—there are some carnal images— no doubt representative of the actual characters portrayed. Caught up in the intrigue of the time, Rodrigo Borgia clashed with his rival Guiliano della Rovere—the future Pope Julius II. Julius was the pope who commanded Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the conflict between the artist and pope is recounted in the film version of Irving Stone’s novel The Agony and The Ecstacy. In the film Charlton Heston plays the artist against Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II. is the trailer with some scenes of the two actors in a shouting match.
From the 1960s comes a fictional pope. In The Shoes of the Fisherman, Anthony Quinn portrays Pope Kiril. Morris West’s prophetic novel envisions a pontiff from the Eastern bloc who turns the church upside down. Ten years after the cold war thriller Pope John Paul II was elected. The Shoes of the Fisherman also features a cameo of John Gielgud once again playing a Pope Pius, but this time it is the fictional Pius XIII. Gielgud is the only example of one actor playing two successive popes—even if one of them was fictional. Watch the trailer for The Shoes of the Fisherman.
Among papal bio pics, the 2005 Pope John Paul II stands out as the best. Cary Elwes plays a young John Paul II while veteran actor Jon Voigt portrays the adult pope brilliantly. Watch the trailer. Ten years earlier a less well known1984 film told the story of John Paul II’s life up to his election with Albert Finney portraying the Polish pope. In John XXIII: The Pope of Peace, Ed Asner was an excellent choice to play Pope John XXIII. You can watch his performance . John XXIII was also played by British actor Bob Hoskins in John XXIII: The Good Pope. YouTube has a long clip . Meanwhile from Rome Reports shows Italian actor Fabrizio Gifuni in a bio pic of Pope Paul VI called
Paul VI: The Pope in the Tempest and Neri Marcore plays Pope John Paul I in Pope John Paul I: The Smile of God.
Gielgud played a third pope in the film Elizabeth about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. This time he played the intransigent Pope Paul IV. One of Paul IV’s predecessors, Paul III also tangled with the Tudors, and he was played by veteran actor Peter O’Toole in the television series The Tudors.
Along with the fictional Pope Kiril in The Shoes of the Fisherman there is the farcical featuring British comic Robbie Coltrane and the film which is even more farcical because it tries to be serious and historical.
Watching papal performances on film is a reminder of how the rich history of the Catholic church is played out by the simple humanity of men who walked in the shoes of the fisherman. As actors played the role of the popel so each man who was elected pope stepped into a role that was bigger than himself. If the men who became pope did so with humanity and humility then each one of us has our own role to play in the greater drama of God’s interaction with the human race.
I think I’ve catalogued the portrayals of the papacy on film. However, if there are any omissions—if the see is vacant—I hope readers will use the comments box to fill in what is missing.
Fr Dwight Longenecker blogs at Standing on My Head. His latest book comes out in time for Lent. In Slubgrip Instructs a diabolical professor instructs his students on how to corrupt popular culture. Connect with Fr Longenecker at www.dwightlongenecker.com.