Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

In every Catholic book and movie catalog I look through, the 1968 movieĀ The Shoes of the Fisherman starring Anthony Quinn is listed in the "Catholic classics" section. This movie has been perennially popular among Catholics for a generation and in its day it was nominated for two oscars, won a Golden Globe and was nominated (and awarded) a few lesser awards. I thought I ought to rent this movie and see what all the acclaim was, so one night my wife and I settled down to watch The Shoes of the Fisherman and were soundly disappointed, especially since after almost forty years the obvious political-liberal themes of the movie were still woefully apparent.

The theme is this: Set in the late 1980's, Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota (Quinn) is set free after two decades as a political prisoner in Siberia. He is brought to Rome by Fr. David Telemond, a troubled young priest who befriends him. Once at the Vatican, he is immediately given an audience with the Pope, who elevates him to Cardinal Priest. The world is on the brink of nuclear war due to a Chinese-Soviet feud that is made worse by a famine caused by trade restrictions brought against China by the U.S.

When the pope suddenly dies, Lakota's genuine character and unique experience move the College of Cardinals to elect him as the new Pope. But Pope Kiril I must now deal with his own self-doubt, the struggle of his friend Fr. Telemond who is under scrutiny for his beliefs, and find a solution to the crisis in China.

This film is problematic for several reasons: first and foremost, the Pontiff in this movie, Kiril Lakota (who arrogantly takes his own real name as his pontifical name, becoming "Kiril I"), is portrayed as more of a political diplomat than a priest. Many popes have been diplomats, of course (Pius XII), but they have also been popes. This pope is all diplomat and no pope. He spends the majority of the movie trying to find a political solution between a fictitious quarrel between China and Russia. Besides refusing to take a pontifical name, he refuses to wear his ecclesiastical garments when meeting with the Russians and Chinese Communists (so as not to offend them) and instead wears a suit and tie. That's right. The pope wears a suit and tie.

Another problem with this movie is the character of Fr. Telamond, a priest who befriends Pope Kiril and who advocates evolutionary views of the faith (a "cosmic Christ"). The pope does not understand his teachings, but nevertheless fails to really condemn them. In Fr. Telamond we see a very obvious type of Telihard de Chardin and a tacit support for his heretical teachings on evolutionary theology. The only good part about Fr. Telamond is that he has some kind of brain hemorrhage and dies just over half way through the movie.

Finally, the method that Pope Kiril uses to solve the Russian-Chinese crisis is utterly stupid: in order to feed the billion or so starving Chinese, he comes up with the brilliant solution of selling all of the artistic treasures of the Vatican in order to raise money to feed them. Well, isn't that nice! But there are a few problems:

(1) Even if he sold the Vatican treasures for billions of dollars, that would only be enough to feed the billions of Chinese for about a month.

(2) Even if he could feed them, it wouldn't solve the fundamental socio-economic crisis that caused the famine and they would likely be starving again very soon.

(3) Even if he did try to sell all the Vatican treasures, it would probably take years before the details of the transactions were complete (nobody makes billion dollar deals too quickly!) and the movie portrays the starvation crisis as one that must be solved urgently. In reality, the Chinese would be long dead and WWIII broken out before the Pope found a buyer for the treasures of the Vatican.

In this movie, we see a version of what Hollywood would like the pope to be: a diplomat who cares nothing for Church Tradition and tacitly permits the teaching of theological-evolutionary heresy. The funny thing is the same people who want the pope to be a diplomat when it comes to matters of establishing world peace and ending world hunger are the same ones who want him to stay out of diplomacy when it comes to right to life issues. I have heard that the book is somewhat better, but that fails to help the film. Bottom line: "The Shoes of the Fisherman" is an awful movie. For that reason, I give it a half tiara.