1968 Drama, rated G (US), runs 2 hours, 40 minutes

Based on the novel by Morris L. West
Directed by Michael Anderson

Major cast:

Anthony Quinn.......... Kiril Lakota
Laurence Olivier....... Pyotr Ilyich Kamenev
Oskar Werner........... Father Telemond

Supporting cast

John Gielgud........... Pope Pius XIII
Vittorio De Sica....... Cardinal Rinaldi
Leo McKern............. Cardinal Leone
Burt Kwouk............. Li Peng
David Janssen.......... George Faber

The National Board of Review called it the best picture of the year, while Alex North was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score, and won the Golden Globe award. Edward Carfagno and George W. Davis were nominated for the Oscar in the Art Direction/Set Decoration category[1], but lost out to Oliver!. I haven't seen that, but it must have pretty awesome art and sets to win out over this film.

For anyone who doesn't know, the title of the film refers to the fact that a Pope follows in the footsteps of the Apostle Peter, the first Pope, the fisherman who became a "Fisher of Men".

Spoilers ahead! As with all of my movie reviews, this includes a pretty complete story summary.

… and some have Greatness thrust upon them.

The movie opens when the loudspeaker at a Siberian labor camp calls out the number of prisoner Kiril Lakota, who is bundled into a tractor that has crossed hundred of miles of frozen wasteland to fetch him. As the titles roll, Lakota is transferred from one transport to another, until he finally ends up in the office of the Soviet Premier.

We find that the two men made each other's acquaintance twenty years earlier, when Kamenev's role was a KGB interrogator. Naturally, nobody during Lakota's journey told him what was going on, so he was understandably flabbergasted at where he ended up. After some small talk, Kamenev's statement that Lakota was being released from prison still didn't illuminate the why. Bringing him up to date on the state of the world — a world on the brink of nuclear war — and particularly the dire straits that China was finding itself in as it plunged into famine, Kamenev's final answer that he wanted somebody out in the world who really knew him still did not enlighten.

But the last piece of the puzzle falls into place with the introduction of Father David Telemond, envoy from the Vatican, who hands Lakota a new passport and declares him a citizen of the Vatican City state. We also learn that Lakota was/is the archbishop of Lvov. Next thing you know, the two are on a plane for Rome. Once there, Lakota barely has time to take a breath of the Italian air before the Pope summons him and makes him a Cardinal, over his objection.

Director Anderson wastes no time moving the story along; almost immediately, the Pope falls ill and dies shortly thereafter. George Faber, a television news reporter who was briefly seen earlier when he was given an exclusive to cover the story of Lakota's rescue and elevation, now assumes his actual role in the movie, which is to explain to the viewer the procedures and ceremonies the Church uses, here those surrounding the funeral rites of a Pope and the election of his successor.

Kiril Cardinal Lakota, his head probably still spinning from the recent events in his life, is now to join his colleagues in electing a new Pope. He says "I'm told I'll need a secretary" (though we don't know why, as the services of such are never shown) and turns to his first friend, Father Telemond. Telemond is a scholar at the Vatican whose views are often considered heretical; his ten books have been suppressed by the guardians of dogma in the Church hierarchy, and he is in the process of defending his newly written eleventh. Before the conclave begins, they are speculating about how things might turn out. "Whoever it is, it will have to be an Italian!" In 1968, the time of the making of the movie, it had indeed been 445 years since a Pope had been non-Italian (Adrian VI, a Dutchman). They laugh and Telemond adds "Whoever it is, I hope he publishes my book."

Also engaging in speculation are Cardinals Rinaldi and Leone, both Italians who had been the closest to the Pope, and both presumed contenders.

While the Cardinals gather and file into the Sistine Chapel, Faber again keeps the world and the audience up to speed. He says there will be two votes each day, and we see a few of them take place, with Leone and Rinaldi coming in first and second but not receiving enough votes to win. After the seventh vote, we see the only politicing that is shown, though presumably it was engaged in continuously. Several of the Cardinals are in discussion, and Lakota, on the sidelines, is drawn into it. His experiences in the labor camps leads to him to speak of the role that violence can play in societal change — not the kind of opinion one would expect to hear from a high religious figure, but the others urge him to continue on. Rinaldi looks thoughtful.

The next day, before the voting begins, Rinialdi stands and announces that, in accordance with canon law, he proclaims his obedience to Kiril Lakota as the new Pope. (The legality of this is, of course, not explained as the Cardinals presumably know it, and Faber doesn't know it's going on so he can't do so.) Lakota demurs, but then another Cardinal follows suit, and then more and more. Finally, Leone and a small retinue march to Lakota's chair. "Do you accept election?" Lakota is dumbfounded and unable to speak. "You must answer now." Suddenly a change comes over Lakota's face and he accepts. It seemed to me that the director might have wanted to imply that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and sanctioned the choice.

He is quickly outfitted in the papal regalia, and leads the college out. The first people to see them are the assemblage of secretaries, and Telemond is, of course, stunned to see that his guy won. George Faber, along with the thousands thronging St. Peter's Square, have been waiting anxiously since seeing the white smoke, and finally the Pope appears on the balcony. "It's the Russian", he says to his television audience. "They've elected a Russian Pope". (Fortunately, of course, he had met with him when he arrived in Rome, so could recognize the relative unknown and totally unexpected.)

The Affairs of State

So we've spent the first half of the movie (well, the first of my two videotapes, anyway) reaching the point that everybody, sooner or later, realized was coming.

Premier Kamenev seems pleased with the election of Lakota, as though he planned it from the beginning, and sends him a gift and a semi-cryptic message referring to the possibly imminent scorching of the earth. Lakota decides he needs to do something to try to avoid it.

Against the advice of all his advisors, he sets up a meeting with Kamenev and Chairman Li Peng of China. At the meeting, Kamenev is conciliatory, suggesting bilateral arms reduction, while Peng is bellicose and concerned with face. Peng is also scornful of Lakota, saying with his offers of negotiation he risks nothing and comes out the good guy regardless.

After you make your pleas to the leaders of the world and are ignored, ever so politely, you are the noble man, the peacemaker who — unfortunately — failed to make peace.
At this, Lakota gets a bit hot under the collar.
Do not dismiss the power of ideas. Look at what your two countries have become, based on the ideas of one man who spent most of his life in the British Library.

Shortly after Lakota's return to the Vatican, Father Telemond dies (which was expected, he had a brain tumor or something), having heard the news from Lakota that his last book had gotten the same reception as his previous ones. Cardinal Leone comes to Lakota to tell him of the death, and then confesses that he had been jealous of Telemond because of the closeness he had achieved with Lakota, and felt badly that he had had to recommend against publishing his book, despite that being his true judgement of it. Lakota then reciprocates by admitting that he had kept everyone but David a bit too distant.

Then, on to the climax: the Papal Coronation. Another ten minute scene of pomp and circumstance. With Lakota and his inner circle all dressed up for the ceremony and gathered in a waiting room somewhere, he acknowledges that they do not agree with his (unstated) plan. He takes off his ring and offers to abdicate. Leone, a vocal opponent of the plan, interjects forcefully, "No! This is Peter!" With that, the others go along. After being borne through seeming miles of hallways and vestibules packed with spectators, Lakota finally reaches the balcony. Leone places the crown (which, while I suppose it's accurate, since I've never seen the real one, looks to me like a total ripoff of the head of Robbie the Robot) on his head and the crowd goes wild. But then Lakota silences them by gingerly removing it, and addresses the crowd and the world:

I am the custodian of the wealth of the Church. I pledge it now — all our money, all our holdings in land, buildings, and great works of art — for the relief of our hungry brothers. And if, to honor this pledge, the Church must strip itself down to poverty, so be it. I will not alter this pledge; I will not reduce it. And now, I beg the great of the world and the small of the world to share out of their abundance with those who have nothing.

Who asked you?
Some remarks by C-Dawg

Everybody has at some point in their life looked at the Roman Catholic Church and its vast wealth, and wondered "What is it doing with all of that? What about those vows of poverty I keep hearing about?" People still asking those questions might like where the movie ends up, but the ironic thing is, Chairman Peng never asked for money to feed his people. His big point was that China was denied access to trade with the "rice bowl" countries.

and Whereas
When the Pope played by John Gielgud dies, there is a ceremony in which his badges of office are destroyed. Just before the hammer comes down on his signet ring, we can see that he was Pope Pius XIII. This is interesting because Pius XII died in 1958, and was succeeded by John XXIII, who was in turn followed by Paul VI, who was Pope when this move was made. But there having been three twentieth century Popes named Pius, the authors may have thought there would be another. As of now, there has not been.

and Whereas
I said earlier that George Faber's only real part in the story is to tell the viewer what's going on in the Vatican. And yet, a substantial amount of screen time is spent on the fact that he's being unfaithful to his wife. This plays no part in the story as a whole. Even odder, shortly after Lakota is elected, he gets palace fever (just like Ralph I does in King Ralph) and while roaming the city, is pressed into service as an errand boy by a physician he runs into who is making a house call. While his adventures fit into the movie, the fact that the doctor is Mrs. Faber is the kind of coincidence that only happens in movies. And yet nothing comes of it! In fact, I believe we never see her again after that.

and Whereas
Father Telemond has two major parts to play. One, to perhaps lend an air of rebellion to Lakota, posthumously supporting Lakota's unprecedented actions. Two, to be the obstacle between Lakota and Leone, and hence emphasize Leone's faith when he ultimately insists the Church follow its new leader.

and Whereas
I also mentioned that something appeared to come over Lakota to make him accept election. I found it funny how he immediately took up the speech pattern of the royal we. As soon as he accepts, Leone asks him "How do you choose to be called", and Pope Kiril I answers "We choose to be called by our name, Kiril".

Now, therefore,
I recommend this movie. While much of what makes it enjoyable is the visual feast and the look behind the scenes that it gives us, it still imposes no great burden upon the critical viewer despite its various flaws.


http://awards.fennec.org for the award information
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12272b.htm for historical information about Popes

[1] While "Art Direction / Set Decoration" is one Academy Award category, apparently individuals are nominated for one or the other, even though a single movie can get nominees for both. Fisherman's nominees were in Art Direction.

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