Set in the late 1960's, Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota 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 war due to a Chinese-Soviet feud made worse by a famine caused by trade restrictions brought against China by the U.S.
When the Pontiff 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.
Anthony Quinn ... Kiril Lakota
Laurence Olivier ... Piotr Ilyich Kamenev (as Sir Laurence Olivier)
Oskar Werner ... Fr. David Telemond
David Janssen ... George Faber
Vittorio De Sica ... Cardinal Rinaldi
Leo McKern ... Cardinal Leone
John Gielgud ... The Elder Pope (as Sir John Gielgud)
Barbara Jefford ... Dr. Ruth Faber
Rosemary Dexter ... Chiara
Frank Finlay ... Igor Bounin
Burt Kwouk ... Peng
Arnoldo Foà ... Gelasio
Paul Rogers ... Augustinian
The film adaption of Morris West's best selling novel Shoes of the Fisherman gives the viewer a rare insight into the workings of the Catholic Church. Even the most dogged of unbelievers have always conceded that in this form of the Christian faith there has always been a grand pageantry at work.
It also a great example of life imitating art. Anthony Quinn is the former Archbishop of Lvov who was sent away for many years by the Communists to time in the Gulag. As a gesture of goodwill the Soviet Premier played Laurence Olivier gives him his release. Quinn and Olivier also have a history of their own, Olivier was the KGB official who interrogated Quinn back in the day and we know what their interrogation methods were like.
Upon reaching the Vatican, the Pope played by John Gielgud makes him a Cardinal. A few months later Gielgud dies and in the conclave to elect a new Pope, it's decided that Cardinal Quinn has some insight into an unbelieving part of the word that no one else possesses. So Quinn steps into The Shoes of the Fisherman.
So we have the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years as we shortly did in real life. Quinn inherits a world in crisis with China suffering from famine and threatening war against its neighbors to obtain food.
I can't reveal what Quinn actually did in the film, but it seems as though he took his cue from Pope Benedict XV who also tried to use his good office to end World War I and also organized relief efforts. In any event, he put it all on the line and I do mean all.
Tony Quinn and Laurence Olivier had a history of their own. They co-starred on Broadway in Becket with Olivier as Becket and Quinn as Henry II. Though there sure wasn't anything wrong with the film adaption that Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole did, it might have been nice to see the original cast perform this.
In fact my favorite in this film is Olivier. With the Soviet Union now broken up we can look back now and see the problems confronting each Soviet premier as they tried to hold their polyglot state of several republics together. Olivier's Kamenev is in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev who was in charge at the time of the Soviet Union. It's with complete seriousness that the actor playing the Chinese premier calls him half a capitalist already. Of course when Mao died, the Chinese have become more than half capitalist themselves.
Others in the cast of note are Oskar Werner as a non-conforming Jesuit who espouses some heretical doctrine who Quinn finds intriguing and Leo McKern and Vittorio DeSica as a pair of politically astute Cardinals.
Good location shooting nicely blended with newsreel footage of crowd scenes give the film a real authenticity. I think Catholic viewers will like Shoes of the Fisherman especially.
The election of a Pope from behind the former Iron Curtain has come to pass. The proposition that China would launch a military invasion of its neighbors to feed its starving masses was implausible even in 1968. All the major powers, including the former Soviet Union would not have stood for it. And today, with China being the most active powerhouse of the world economy whose interests are intertwined with the United States and the European Union, the proposition of a Chinese military adventure for economic gain seems preposterous.
What remains to be current in the film is the subplot regarding Fr. Telemond (Oskar Werner) who is based on the real-life Jesuit scholar, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist who got in trouble with the Roman Curia because of his attempt to reconcile science and religion through a new theology based on the natural sciences. This aspect of the film came to mind as I followed developments on the controversy between proponents of the "intelligent design" approach in teaching science versus the secular evolution approach.
In the film, Fr. Telemond in expounding on his theological evolution before a papal commission of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith could not adequately explain his adherence to the idea that God created the world through evolution when it was pointed out to him that evolution proceeds through violence (cf. "survival of the fittest") which would mean that God is the "author of violence" as Cardinal Leone (portrayed by Leo Mckern) put it. In hindsight, the Catholic Church had long ago made peace with evolution when Pope Pius XII said that it doesn't matter how the creation of the world is explained as long as it does not preclude or deny the existence of The Creator.
The current brouhaha in Kansas is the product of a misunderstanding of evolution both by the religionists and the agnostic-atheists. The theory of evolution along the now classical Darwinian lines does not explain the origin of life but only the diversity of life. Much less does it attempt to explain the origin of the universe.
Unfortunately, the enemies of religion ever since the Enlightenment have tried to use science to disprove the existence of God and there are those among them, either misinformed or malicious, who teach that evolution and astrophysics have negated the idea of the existence of a Creator. Current understanding of quantum physics imply that the substance of matter in its smallest manifestations may not be "material" after all, in the sense that "matter" has been understood. Einstein, of course, has shown the equation between energy and matter. But more recent discoveries borne out of smashing atoms and subatomic particles indicate that the smallest quanta are capable of uniting with other particles not because of their materiality nor even of their energy content, but because of the information they contain. Thus, the perceived self-organization of "matter" seems to be guided by antecedent information it contains. So the intriguing question is begged: Who put that information there?
Clearly Kiril was sent to the Gulag because he is a Catholic Bishop in an atheistic Soviet empire. Worse, he is Ukrainian Catholic. Even under Czarist Russia, a confessional state under Greek Eastern Orthodoxy (in this case Russian because the Greek Orthodox Church is divided along national lines), Catholics were frowned upon. The Ukrainian Catholics though not Roman Rite Catholics, have their own rite and are united with the Holy See. And of course, the Ukrainians never thought of themselves as simply an ethnic group within Russia but as an actual nation, an attitude that did not sit well with the ruling powers at the Kremlin.
Trivia: In both the movie and the book, members of the Curia wondered whether Pope Kiril would use the traditional crucifix (a cross with the corpus depicting Christ) as his pectoral cross, the sign of his office as Bishop of Rome according to the Latin Rite or, whether he would use an icon. As historical perspective, the Iconoclastic Controversy (when some quarters interpreted images as idolatrous in the Old Testament sense) in the Byzantine Empire was resolved by allowing representations of God and His saints in flat or semi-flat media as in painting and mosaics but not in the round as in statues. Pope Kiril stuck with the icon. Typically that would have shown Christ on one side and the Virgin Mary as the Mother of Perpetual Help on the other.
You would note also that Kiril opted to use his own name with his title of Pope foregoing a tradition of taking the name of a saint or predecessor whose examples a pope wishes to emulate during his reign. This was well as it should have been because Kiril is obviously named after St. Cyril, who with his companion St. Methodius converted the Slavs to Christianity. They, of course, came from the Eastern Roman Empire (now referred to by historians as the Byzantine Empire) whose center of power was Constantinople where Greek had supplanted the Latin of the fallen Western Roman Empire.
The line I liked best in the movie was delivered by the Soviet Premier (played by Olivier) who, upon seeing Bishop Lakota (Quinn) after so many years in the Gulag, remarked (and here I freely quote from memory): "Before you acted as if you had the truth in your own private pocket and no one could dispute it with you. But now you don't seem so sure. I like you better now."
Technically, this is not a great film, but I'm still a sucker for Shoes of the Fisherman. I love its idealism. As a Catholic, I love the vision of courage that this film holds out for the Church -- it is the way I wish it really were. This film has an epic quality to it, with expansive, lavish settings and a rich texture. This is one of the few films I can watch again and again and enjoy every time.
This movie is not without its flaws. The editing is awkward and the film could have been tightened a bit (okay, a lot!). One of the things that bugs me is how the character of Cardinal Rinaldi (the Vatican Secretary of State played by Vittorio De Sica, who is pivotal in the early part of the movie) disappears in the second half without any explanation.
Also, the sub-plot with David Janssen as a philandering television reporter is annoying and superfluous. His only redeeming contribution is in how, during his reports, he provides good exposition about the traditions involved in burying one pope and electing the next.
But these things pale next to Oskar Werner's wonderful, understated perfomance as a philosopher/archeologist/priest who becomes friends with the soon-to-be Pope Kiril. (This character, Fr. David Telemond, is clearly based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) The relationship of suspicion and affection between these two men is very engaging.
Werner has one of the best lines in the film when, after his character is censored by a pontifical commission, he says, "The Church. I hate her, still I cannot leave her. I love her, still I cannot live in her in peace." I think that line is beautiful and sums up the way many Catholics feel!
Finally, I have to say that I am not a big Anthony Quinn fan. I usually found him to be hammy. (I think he got a little too much mileage out of his Zorba schtick!) But in this film, he is wonderfully restrained. He gives a soulful performance as a reluctant hero who has suffered much and now only wants to be left in peace, but who also feels the call of his God and his fellow human beings. In my opinion, even though it is largely ignored by the critics, Quinn gave his best performance in Shoes of the Fisherman.
* Alex North reused the opening fanfare he wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but which was rejected by Stanley Kubrick, as one of the main themes in his score.
* Although it is never mentioned or indicated at any point in the film, the story is actually set 20 years in the future.
* The footage showing the arrival of the Cardinals and the crowds gathering in St. Peter's Square is taken from news reels and other archive films that documented the events between the death of Pope John XXIII and the election of Pope Paul VI in 1963.
* Reference is made to Kiril being the first non-Italian pope to be elected since Adrian VI 400 years earlier. In real life, this happened 10 years after this film was released with the election of Pope John Paul II.