We are living in the golden age of the papal film. On Sunday night, The Two Popes, a movie starring Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI, competed for three Academy Awards. Ultimately, it was overlooked in all three categories: best actor (Pryce), best supporting actor (Hopkins) and best adapted screenplay. But Pryce and Hopkins made history nevertheless, becoming the first actors to be nominated for an Oscar for playing a successor of St Peter.
Since the birth of cinema, filmmakers have shown scant interest in the papacy. According to a list at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), there have been only a dozen pope movies. The first, according to IMDb, was a little-known Italian film called The Secret Conclave, made in 1952. Then there was nothing until 1965, when Rod Steiger starred in A Man Named John, based on the youthful diaries of Angelo Roncalli, who became John XXIII. This marked the birth of a papal movie sub-genre: the pontifical biopic. Films in this category include The Good Pope: Pope John XXIII (2003), featuring Bob Hoskins; the searing Karol: A Man Who Became Pope (2005); Pope John Paul II (2005), a miniseries starring Jon Voight; Pope John Paul I: The Smile of God, a 2006 Italian television movie; and the 2015 films Francis: Pray for Me and Chiamatemi Francesco (Call Me Francis).
These movies were not, on the whole, artistically distinguished, but they did a decent job of dramatising the lives of modern popes.
The 1960s saw the birth of another sub-genre, which we might call “pope fiction”: improbable stories with papal protagonists.
In 1968, the director Michael Anderson (best known for The Dam Busters) released The Shoes of the Fisherman. It was based on Morris West’s novel about the surprise election of the radical Pope Kiril. While the film picked up a handful of Oscar nominations, it was a notable box office disappointment. Anderson added to the sub-genre with the 1972 Pope Joan, starring Liv Ullmann as a modern-day preacher who is suspected of being a reincarnation of the legendary female pope.
So the history of the papal film was hitherto largely undistinguished. Until The Two Popes, no movies in this category had come close to achieving mainstream success.
What conclusions can we draw from this brief tour of papal movies? One is that the genre only really came into its own after the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps before the Council filmmakers had been afraid of offending Catholic sensibilities. Afterwards, they may have wanted to capitalise on the unprecedented media coverage given to an event that charted a new course for the 20th-century Church.
But directors were probably also tapping into a fundamental change in the way we see popes. Before Vatican II, perhaps, they were regarded above all as guardians of a two millennia-long tradition, rather than as interesting characters in their own right. But after the Council, many began to view the popes – rightly or wrongly – as protagonists in a revolutionary enterprise, able to dispense with traditions no longer suited to the modern age. Their individual psychology therefore became interesting.
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been seen as a radical outsider taking on a sclerotic Vatican. This is innately dramatic. It is not surprising therefore that Francis has generated his own cottage industry of films, including the two 2015 biopics mentioned earlier and the 2018 Wim Wenders documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. (Francis may have also indirectly inspired the bizarre HBO series The Young Pope and The New Pope.)
Francis’s election was, of course, preceded by an even more seismic event: the first papal resignation for 600 years. Benedict XVI’s retreat to the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery created a novel and somewhat surreal situation: the new Pope and his predecessor living side by side in the Vatican. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten seized on the extraordinary dramatic possibilities and wrote The Two Popes.
So the Church itself has helped to turn the papal movie into a lucrative genre. It would be astonishing if The Two Popes didn’t inspire imitators. The Vatican seems unlikely to profit from this; but perhaps it could. It has, we are told, already experimented with film financing, helping to fund the risqué Elton John biopic Rocketman. Perhaps it should consider investing in papal films as well.
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