Great portrayals of the papacy on film
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 go here to 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 here. 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 here, 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. Here 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 Fishermanhere.
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 here. 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 here. John XXIII was also played by British actor Bob Hoskins in John XXIII: The Good Pope. YouTube has a long clip here. Meanwhile this clip from Rome Reports shows Italian actor Fabrizio Gifuni in a bio pic of Pope Paul VI called