and arcane religious rituals wouldn’t seem to make for good filmed
entertainment. And yet, the Vatican’s papal election process – occurring again this
week to name a successor to Pope Benedict XVI – has been detailed in cinema almost
as many times as the more Hollywood-sounding subject of papal assassination
while the workings of the pontifical election conclave might not be surprising
in a religious film, they were even deemed dramatic enough for inclusion in The Godfather Part III. Yep, Francis
Ford Coppola’s 1990 crime epic takes a break between whackings to portray the
1978 conclave that elected the first Pope John Paul.
more impressive than the fact that cinema has depicted this process is the fact
that, on occasion, the movies seem to have gotten it right. When a papal
vacancy isn’t being used as a premise for a goofy comedy (witness 1991’s The Pope Must Diet!), the election process
is treated with seeming care and accuracy.
course, screenwriters can only base such scenes on the generally accepted
consensus of how the election conclave of cardinals works; no press members have
ever documented the proceedings first hand. No cameras have been allowed.
I’ve never heard of a [conclave member] writing a report of it,” says Bill
Ryan, spokesman for the United Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ryan says he
assumes screen treatments of the conclave are “working backward from the
document,” referring to On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of
the Roman Pontiff.
1968’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, which
chronicles the rise of fictional Pope Kiril I (Anthony Quinn), also benefited
from the technical consulting of Monsignor Adone Terzariol, an unofficial papal
advisor. The film is likely the tastemaking cinematic vision of the conclave,
the blueprint for other films’ depiction of the same.
Anthony Quinn in The Shoes of the Fisherman.
Shoes of the Fisherman – a twice-over
Oscar nominee – presents the pontifical election in fine detail. We see the cardinals
locked in the annex of the Sistine Chapel by the Marshal of the Conclave. Ballots
are cast, placed onto a plate, then dumped into a chalice. Wet straw is burned with
the ballots to produce black smoke, indicating a failure to elect a pontiff on
the first few days of voting. Canopies collapse overhead each cardinal not
elected pope after the new pontiff has accepted.
Shoes of the
uses a TV news journalist (played by David Janssen) as its exposition.
Janssen’s character is stationed outside St. Peter’s, giving very specific
play-by-play analysis. If the dry crime-lab films of the 1950s can be termed
“Police Procedurals,” the mid portion of Fisherman
is truly a Pontifical Procedural.
only does Shoes of the Fisherman
capture the rituals of the election in great detail, its election of a
fictional Russian pope foretells the coronation of Polish pope John Paul II,
the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
films The Pope Must Diet! and The Godfather Part III (neither of which
credit a religious technical advisor) seem to have borrowed Fisherman’s vision of the election
The Pope Must Diet!, about a schlubby
priest (Robbie Coltrane) who is accidentally coronated as Pope, does serve as a
reminder that the elected Pontiff need not be a cardinal attending the conclave.
could be any baptized male,” says Ryan. Other reports suggest it can be any
adult Roman Catholic.
The Pope Must Diet! covers many of the
rituals surrounding a papal succession – at least those rituals that serve as easy
fodder for cheap jokes. In Diet, the
deceased pope isn’t just tapped on the forehead with the silver papal hammer to
determine death, he’s given a good whack. Papal nominations are struck down on
the grounds of “He’s too fat!” And the cardinals are wanded with metal
detectors before entering the conclave (though this last joke isn’t too far off
the truth; the conclave is reportedly screened for bugging devices).
the 1984 telefilm Pope John Paul II
shows a side of the electoral conclave not covered in Shoes of the Fisherman. The Polish pope-to-be, portrayed by Albert
Finney, is seen in his sparsely furnished conclave quarters between election
days. Apparently, this is an accurate depiction, as each cardinal has a cell furnished
only with a bed, a crucifix, a table and chairs.
even movies that don’t detail the conclave can raise provocative points about
1972 film Pope Joan – about a rumored
female Pope that snuck in around 855 – is one of several films to feature a papal
election but that skips the rituals of the election process (2003’s Luther and 1981’s From a Far Country are others). But when Pope Joan’s infirm pontiff (Trevor Howard) suggests a successor on
his deathbed, it raises the question of whether an outgoing pope has ever tried
to name his replacement.
totally in the realm of speculation or fiction,” says Ryan.
it all might be, considering that only cardinals, sworn to secrecy, have
witnessed a papal election conclave. The closest depiction we may ever see is on
Films Depicting the Papal Enclave
Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968), with Anthony Quinn as fictional Pope Kiril I
John Paul II” (1983), with Albert Finney as Pope John Paul II
Godfather Part III” (1990), with Raf Vallone as Pope John Paul
Pope Must Diet!” (1991), with Robbie Coltrane as a fictional pope
Films Featuring the Election of a New Pope
Joan” (1972), with Liv Ullman as rumored female successor to Pope Leo IV
a Far Country” (1981), with Cezary Morawski as Pope John Paul II
(2003), with Uwe Ochsenknecht as Pope Leo X