Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky


I was super excited when I saw the promos for the TV miniseries Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky. Directed by Christian Duguay, most famous for the Anna Karenina series, the 2010 Italian miniseries was repackaged as a feature film and sold as a historical drama about the pontificate of Pius XII during the German occupation of Rome. Many Traditionalists in particular were overjoyed to see their beloved Papa Pacelli depicted on film. Would we finally see a fair depiction of the late pontiff's actions with regards to the Jews and the Holocaust? Would he be portrayed as the extremely humble and saintly pontiff he was? So, how does this movie depict Pius XII and his struggles during World War II?

Meet Davide and Miriam. Davide is a Roman Jew, only nominally devoted to his faith, who has made a living for himself as a smuggler during the war. His love is a young Jewish girl Miriam, the daughter of a bookstore owner who has gone underground publishing newspapers critical of the Nazi regime. Miriam is pure, selfless and devoted to her people and her family, while Davide is opportunistic, making money off the black market and the backs of his people's suffering. Davide's opportunism at first offends Miriam, who rejects his romantic advances. However, when the SS conducts a sweeping raid of the Roman Jewish ghetto and Miriam loses her family, she is forced to rely on Davide to survive. Miriam slowly learns the art of getting by at whatever cost, while Davide comes to develop a truly selfless disposition in his care of Miriam. The two begin to fall in love as they try to survive the Nazi occupation of Rome. We follow them through a variety of dangers, eventually to a monastery where they are sheltered by the Catholic Church. In the end, of course, the allies liberate Rome and Davide and Miriam are wed.

Nice story. My only question: What does any of this have to do with Pius XII?

This is my biggest complaint about this film, and it is considerable. I'm not exaggerating when I say that 85% of the movie is about the romantic adventures of Davide and Miriam, whom we get to know far better than Pius XII (played by James Cromwell), who only pops in and out occasionally in a series of cut shots. Davide and Miriam's story is exciting, to be sure: kidnap and escape, gun battles, hiding in the monastery, rescues, barbarous Nazi villains. But it is not about Pius XII, which is unfortunately what the film is advertised as being about.

We do see Pius XII here and there, but as a character, he remains aloof. We see him doing lots of real interesting things: the Pope pacing around his room, the Pope looking out his windows, the Pope pacing in his garden, pacing around St. Peters, sitting at his desk, laying in his bed. Fascinating! The most boring scenes in the movie are those with Pius XII, which is unfortunate. The director clearly had a problem depicting the contribution of characters without resorting to physical action. The Pius XII scenes honestly are reminiscent of those dull scenes from the Star Wars prequels where Anakin, Obi Wan and the ever-so-memorable Mace Windu are walking around talking endlessly.

Even more disappointingly, we never see Pius celebrating Mass or doing anything liturgical.

I believe the purpose of the film was to try to do two things: (1) Show the precarious position the Pontiff found himself in during the Roman occupation, and (2) Demonstrate how is efforts to save Jews from the Nazis were played out in the lives of ordinary Jews, hence the creation of the fictional Davide and Miriam. Unfortunately, the two themes never seem to connect. Although Pius' aims are noble, there seems to be little interpenetration between the Pius-plot and the Davide and Miriam plot. Davide and Miriam never once mention the pope and they seem entirely ignorant of his support.

The Nazis are also over-the-top evil. I know Nazis are evil, yes. But these ones are so evil as to stray into the realm of the unbelievable. The Indiana Jones trilogy (I do not acknowledge Crystal Skull) did a good job of handling the Nazi villains; Pus XII: Under the Roman Sky goes even beyond Indiana Jones in its depiction of the Germans. I guess that's fine because the Nazis really were evil, but it is bothersome when a film resorts to an unbelievably evil antagonist to force us to have more sympathy for weakly developed protagonists.

So, this film has a lot of stuff wrong with it. But it could have been very good. The director clearly had a problem keeping the focus on Pius XII and had to invent fictional protagonists to get around this. But he could have salvaged it. Here's how:

Instead of focusing in excessively on a few months in Rome during 1943 and 1944, the film could have depicted the entire pontificate of Pius XII up to that point. It could have shown his struggles with the emerging Nazi movement as papal ambassador to the Weimar Regime in the early 1930s, the issuance of the encyclical Mit Brenender Sorge under Pius XI, and moved from 1932 up to 1944, depicting a growing antagonism between Pius and the Nazis until the struggle finally comes to the City of Rome itself. Thus we could the big picture, how the struggle between the papacy and the Germans developed. The situation in Rome, 1943 would thus be the climax of a long development and not the entirety of the movie. Then the movie would have really been about Pius XII and we would have gotten to know him a lot better.

As it is, the director was not sure if he wanted a story about an admirable pope who did his best to fight the Nazi evil or a kind of tug-your-heart strings human interest story about the plight of the Jews of the Roman ghetto. What we get is a confused mix of both.

This film is alright; the scenes with Davide and Miriam are not bad, they are just not what you expect. The Davide-Miriam story would have made a good stand alone movie, but what we get is the Davide-Miriam story with awkward interpolations of Pius XII doing a bunch of boring stuff. If you know what you are in for, then watch it by all means, but I think, like my wife and I, you will find yourself shouting at the screen, "Show the Pope, already!"

1.5 tiaras