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The papacy is ripe fruit for any filmmaker. As actors played the role of the pope, so each man who was elected pope stepped into a role that was bigger than himself…

With the HBO series The Young Pope (reviewed by Tyler Blanski) the world has been taken once again into the irresistible intrigues of the papacy and the Vatican. With its venerable and sometimes horrendous history, the Renaissance splendor of the setting, the whiff of scandal, the temptation to power, and the allure of eternity, the papacy is ripe fruit for any filmmaker.

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 of Catholic convert Alec Guinness playing Pope Innocent III in Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Mr. Guinness brings his best Obi-Wan Kenobi mystique to the role.

Meanwhile, you can 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 repackaged 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. 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 miniseries The BorgiasJeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, the corrupt renaissance pope Alexander VI (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.

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.

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.

Among papal biopics, 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. Ten years earlier a less well-known 1984 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. John XXIII was also played by British actor Bob Hoskins in John XXIII: The Good Pope. Meanwhile, 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.

Along with the fictional Pope Kiril in The Shoes of the Fisherman, there is the farcical The Pope Must Die, featuring British comic Robbie Coltrane, and the film Pope Joan, 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, as it is played out by the simple humanity of men who walked in the shoes of the fisherman. As actors played the role of the pope, 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.

Learn about Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Mystery of the Magi, by going to the book’s page hereThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Character actor Moroni Olsen had a small but key role as Pope Leo the Great in the 1954 “Sign of the Pagan” about Attila the Hun (Jack Palance).

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