This is one of the harder reviews I’ve written. There have been a couple of biopics made about the life of Blessed John Paul II. You may not be aware that there is also a movie (mini-series really) telling the story of Paul VI. Paul VI: The Pope in the Tempest is an Italian production from 2008, starring Fabrizio Gifuni as the Holy Father. Like with most things relating to Pope Paul, it is tough to sum up in just a few words, but I’ll do my best.
It’s a pretty thorough telling of the pope’s adult life. I have to give the filmmakers credit for tracking the events from Fr. Montini to Pope Montini. Though the narrative unfolds mostly in flashbacks, the main period is focused around the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978. The movie begins by showing the difficulties he experienced in Italy under Fascist rule and how the future Vicar of Christ met the individuals who would influence him in later years. Moro, of course, is one of the more prominent figures in this group. From there, we are shown Fr. Montini’s role in the service of the popes from Pius XI to Blessed John XXIII, his reign as archbishop of Milan, and naturally, his own papacy.
Since basically everybody in the film is an also-ran other than Gifuni, his is the only role that really matters. I have no memory of Paul VI’s pontificate, so I can’t really judge whether or not his portrayal was accurate. However, I can say that he conveyed the mental image I have of Pope Paul quite well. There was lots of internal anguish, indecision, and even fear of his own authority that translated very well, even with subtitles. Personally, I don’t think he looked the part, though. I actually thought the guy they used as a young Cardinal Wojtyla probably had a better physical resemblance. He sure as heck didn’t look like JPII.
The production was less than outstanding. It’s clear that the purpose was a straight-forward account of Giovanni Montini’s journey to and through the papacy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but people should remember that this is a foreign film, so there are going to be less bells and whistles than even what was seen in the JPII movies. The camera angles were almost entirely straight shots, the score was cheesy, and the character exchanges never had any more depth than to throw the story back over to Gifuni.
As for the actual historical account given, I was surprised. Vatican II was shown with plenty of argument and discord. That was good. Sure, they got a couple of things wrong, such as Cardinal Suenens disrupting the opening session rather than Cardinal Lienart, but it was amazing that it was shown at all. Of course, it was portrayed as a positive thing, but it’s not like this was being produced by the SSPX. Speaking of which, there were also several scenes with Archbishop Lefebvre, where His Excellency lamented to the Pope how Mass attendance was collapsing, priests were abandoning their vocations, people were losing their faith, and so forth. The Holy Father never really answers him. Having such an honest depiction of the dark times was not what I expected. It was refreshing, in a way.
This honesty led to a lot of problems, though, especially with the ending. You could tell that the desire to paint a sympathetic portrait was the overriding factor for the film. That meant that the dark times, while introduced, wound up getting semi-whitewashed at the conclusion since there was no other way to deal with them outside of admitting that the Pope failed to address the problems before he died. For those who aren’t familiar with this era of Church history, the plot might seem disjointed or muddled. If a person is aware of these events, it can be very depressing. I once heard a remark that Paul VI might be one of the most hated men of the 20th century. Traditionalist Catholics don’t like him because he presided over the “auto-demolition” (the Holy Father’s own words!) of the Church during the 60s and 70s. The rest of the Church and the world hold him in contempt for daring to write Humanae Vitae.
In many ways, that split image is that we’re left of Pope Paul VI and the tempestuous times in which he lived and reigned. More than anything, he’s seen as a man to be pitied. I don’t think that’s necessarily what the movie was aiming for, but it’s what I was feeling when the credits rolled. For the knowledgeable and the uninformed, I would recommend this movie for no other reason than to get a better idea of what papal power can mean to the individuals who both serve and wield it. The historical narrative makes for a good bonus.
Review by Throwback