Of all the “priest movies” I have collected over the past few years, The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) is the one I have watched the most. The film, which is based on a novel by Morris L. West (which I have not read), runs over 160 minutes, but I love every scene and never fail to watch it to the very end.
The cold war setting of Shoes makes the film seem somewhat dated. So does the plot involving a Russian political prisoner, a former archbishop from the Ukraine, who is released to the Vatican by the Soviet premier and is soon elected pope, only to be then roped into committing the resources of the Church to save China from famine and thus avert a nuclear war. The acting is also less than stellar, perhaps because much of the cast is attempting—unsuccessfully—to speak their lines in foreign accents. Moreover, the movie relies a great deal for its dramatic impact on the opulence of the Vatican, from the magnificent buildings to the stately rituals. Of course, as a liturgy queen, I am turned on by most of this.
I am also completely smitten by Anthony Quinn and Oskar Werner. I loved Quinn as the charismatic but avaricious Arab tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia. He is equally impressive—and larger than life—as Kyril Lakota in Shoes. Werner is poignant and believable in his role as the beleaguered theologian Father David Telemond.
It is interesting to consider this film in light of both the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church and especially the papacy. First of all, Father Telemond, introduced very early in the film as he is the representative sent by the Vatican to collect Kyril Lakota, is a theologian/archaeologist/philosopher whose “work is under study by a special pontifical commission.” He tells Lakota: “For years I have been forbidden to teach or to publish anything. I was suspect of holding opinions dangerous to the faith.” While the older man does not understand and cannot support the radical views of Father Telemond, a close friendship develops between the two men.
Meanwhile, Father Telemond is called to explain his views in front of a commission composed entirely of clergy. He is told that the purpose of the commission is to examine the content of his works “to see if they conform to fundamental Christian doctrine.” Telemond claims that he is “one man trying to answer the questions of every man…Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Is there any sense in beauty and ugliness, in terror and suffering and in daily death, which make up the pattern of existence?” Through a series of leading questions, his interrogators eventually come to the ultimate question of “good or evil, right or wrong, in the Christian sense.” At one point the young priest is accused of heresy.
The meeting is adjourned when a priest arrives to announce that the pope has collapsed. The pontiff soon dies, and the inquisition resumes only after the new pope has been elected. In the end, the commission rules that “the works of Father Telemond present ambiguities and even grave errors in philosophical and theological matters which offend Catholic doctrine.” The commission recommends that the priest “be prohibited from teaching or publishing the dubious opinions above mentioned until a full and formal examination has been made.” Pope Kyril, Telemond’s friend, has no choice but to accept the ruling of the commission and to silence his friend. One wonders how many times those words of prohibition were used during the pontificates of Pius XII and John Paul II.
The movie also gently criticizes the pretensions and perks of the Roman curia. Here is a conversation between Cardinals Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) and Leone (Leo McKern) shortly before the conclave to elect a new pope begins:
Rinaldi: We are all too old. There are not more than half a dozen of us who can give the church what it needs at this moment.
Leone: Do you think you are one of them?
Rinaldi: One what?
Leone: One of the half dozen.
Rinaldi: I know I’m not.
Leone: Do you think I have a chance of election?
Rinaldi (laughs): I hope not.
Leone (also laughs): Don’t worry. I know I haven’t. You know, Valerio, I should have been a country priest, with just enough theology to hear confession and just enough Latin to get through Mass. I would sit in front of my church on summer evenings and talk about the crops. And what am I now? A walking encyclopaedia of dogma. A theological dictionary on two legs.
Rinaldi: Each of us has his own cross….Do you know what mine is? My cross, I mean. To be rich and content and fulfilled and to know that I have deserved none of it and that when I am called to judgment, I must depend utterly on the mercy of God.
One wonders whether Leone is sincere in his desire for the simple life, but if he does covet the papal ring, he is soon disappointed. After seven rounds of voting have failed to elect a new pope, the frontrunners have all exhausted their chances. During a break in the conclave, a group of cardinals is discussing the new generation of priests who favour change, even revolution, and the Russian cardinal is asked for his opinion as he has experienced revolution first-hand. Reluctantly he offers his thoughts, and the humble but steely-willed Lakota makes a powerful impression.
Lakota: We should manufacture the authentic Christian revolution: work for all, bread for all, dignity for all men.
Leone: But without violence.
Lakota: Well, excuse me, but violence is a reaction against a situation that has become intolerable, isn’t it?
Leone (dubiously): Oh?
Lakota: Well, in the camps in Siberia, we were starved and brutalized. I stole…I….I stole some bread. I fed it crumb by crumb to a man whose jaw had been broken by a guard. I…I fought the guard to save my friend. I could have killed him. That was a terrifying experience. I, a bishop, could have killed a man.
Rinaldi: So as a bishop you would give your approval to social disorder.
Lakota: I might be forced to accept it as a price for social change, yes.
Rinaldi: You are walking a moral tightrope.
Lakota: We all have to walk it. That is what we pay for being men.
Rinaldi: But what if you had killed the guard?
Lakota: I don’t know. I…I don’t know, Eminence. I do know we’re in action in a brutal world. The children of God are ours to protect, and if we have to fight, we fight.
In the voting session that follows this conversation, Rinaldi stands to offer his vote to Lakota, and soon enough cardinals follow suit that the Russian is proclaimed pope. It is from this point, and throughout the second half of the film, that the movie’s ideal image of a modern pope is presented. We should keep in mind that the film was released just three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council.
Shoes of the Fisherman strives to depict the new pope as a man of simplicity and humility. Upon his election he introduces himself to his private butler as "Kyril Lakota." He prevails upon that same butler to find him a black cassock and hat so that he can sneak out of the Vatican and explore the alleyways of Rome as an ordinary priest. In one of the more touching scenes from the film, he brings medicine from a pharmacy to an English doctor who is treating a dying man. When he sees the condition of the man, Kyril immediately begins to administer the last rites, but is quickly told that the man is not Christian; he is a Jew. The Holy Father puts his hat on, covers his face with his hand and begins to chant the Hebrew prayer for the dying.
When Kyril I meets the Soviet premier Kamenev on the way to negotiate with the Chinese leader in an effort to avert nuclear war, Kamenev says, “You are changed.” Lakota responds, “I do not feel changed.” Kamenev tells him, “There was a pride in you once. More, an arrogance, as if you carried the truth in a private purse and no one could dispute it with you. When I hated you—and I did—it was because of that.” Lakota says, “I am a low man who sits too high for his gifts.”
Yet Pope Kyril recognizes both his power—as religious leader of 800 million people—and his terrifying responsibility to embrace and carry out the charitable mission of the Church. In spite of the opposition of many in the inner circle of the Vatican, he pledges all of the wealth of the Church to save the Chinese people from famine.
At his coronation, in front of half a million people in St. Peter’s Square, he rejects the Triple Tiara that has been a papal symbol since ancient times and says: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose Vicar, I am, was crowned with thorns. I stand before you bareheaded because I am your servant.”
He then recites the famous verses from Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing.”
As I said, the film offers us its version of an ideal pope, one who has the humility to recognize that he is the servant of the people of God, in other words, of all people. Yet is this such a lofty ideal that it is just too difficult for our modern pontiffs to realize? Humility does not reside in papal letters or in symbolic acts; it lies in the soul of the humble servant.