Reel Papal: A Brief History of Popes on Film

Where there's smoke there's fire, unless it's a Papal Conclave. Then, if there's smoke it means the Holy Ghost has inspired 115 pious men to enter a name under the J.K. Rowling-esque phrase “Eligo in Summum Pontificem.” After that, the Cards speak. If two-thirds agree on a candidate then the white smoke rises over the Sistine Chapel and We Have a Pope.

It's all very cinematic, what with the Michelangelo frescoes and elaborate costume design. In fact, The Holy Father, whom Catholics consider the successor of Saint Peter and leader of the One True Church, has had his share of appearances in movies. Not all of them have been infallible (see Robbie Coltrane in “The Pope Must Diet”. Better yet, don't) but some of them have been quite interesting.

With the current transition of power currently underway in the Holy See, we've got bishops on the brain and figured this was a good time to look back.

"Habemus Papam" (2011). Directed by Nanni Moretti

Certainly the most topical of pope movies, but we won't lie and call it a great film. “Habemus Papam” (a Latin phrase that's something of a Pontifical “Let's Get Ready To Rummmmmble!”) is a fascinating and (somewhat) funny look at a Papal Conclave. When Michel Piccoli's name is called he is suddenly stricken with doubt and quickly splits the Sistine Chapel. The remaining Cardinals are left looking at an empty cathedra and proceed to vamp in front of the entire world. If you are the type of person who likes to read into things, you can interpret “Habemus Papam” as a scathing indictment of current Vatican policies. Or, you can just look at it as an interesting character portrait.

Johnny Dangerously (1984). Directed by Amy Heckerling


One of the funniest movies to play on an endless HBO loop during the 1980s was “Johnny Dangerously,” a parody of 1930s gangster pictures that was told with a considerable share of absurdism. As Michael Keaton's titular character becomes a Cagney-esque tough guy, his main goal is to keep the news from his sweet mother. When Keaton tries to refute his double life on the street, a voice calls out “yeah, and I'm the Pope.” At which point we see Dom DeLuise as the Pope. “But nobody here is gonna' say nothin'!” he continues. In a movie filled with zany moments, it might be the zaniest.

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). Directed by Carol Reed

“When will you make an end of it?” “When it's finished!”

Such is the repeated argument between Rex Harrison's Pope Julius II and Charlton Heston's Michelangelo in Carol Reed's extremely entertaining adaptation of Irving Stone's novel.

Heston, madness in his eyes and paint in his beard, toils atop a scaffold, spending decades (off and on) working on the Sistine Chapel. Harrison, ever his match, is of a time when being Pope wasn't just an ecclesiastical position, but also the active head of state. A Pope directing armies on a battlefield? That just seems ... unholy. But who am I to argue with a movie?

The Godfather Part III (1990). Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Remember the guy who gets stabbed in the neck with his own glasses? That wasn't the Pope. But that was all part of the somewhat muddy Papal conspiracy in the movie that I've been meaning to watch a second time for (yikes) 23 years now.

Anyway, there was a Pope John Paul I who died somewhat mysteriously, as well as a banking scandal, in the late 1970s. Whether or not New York gangsters had anything to do with it remains unknown, but a representation of conspiracy theorists' favorite Pontiff is in this film. No to Robert Duvall, but yes to the guy who was only Pope for 33 days.

Masked and Anonymous (2003), Larry Charles

After John Paul I came John Paul II, or, as John Goodman's character in “Masked and Anonymous” calls him J.P. Deuce.

In a gag even briefer than DeLuise's in “Johnny Dangerously,” a dead ringer for Karol Wojtyla presents himself as a background artist for Bob Dylan/Jack Fate's benefit concert to preserve democracy and save mankind.

There's no way we could find such a specific image from this wholly forgotten movie – one that might have become a cult classic if 2003 wasn't such a bummer of a year – so instead check out the awesome musical moment from the film we've embedded above. Watch it in its entirety and watch it loud.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Directed by Martin Scorsese

If you want to get strict about it (and Popes often do) then pretty much any Jesus movie features a Pope. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Boom! On the technicality, we're counting Peter the Apostle as a Pope.

While my favorite “straight” Jesus picture will always be Nicholas Ray's 1961 masterpiece “King of Kings,” my favorite depiction of Peter might be Philip Toubas' in Norman Jewison's “Jesus Christ Superstar” (“I don't know him!!!”)

But I don't want to overload this list with musicals. To that end, check out legendary caricature actor Victor Argo in Scorsese's “Last Temptation.”

The casting in this movie is so nuts (Harvey Keitel as Judas, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, John Lurie, Andre Gregory, Harry Dean Stanton, Irvin Kershner) that you might overlook Argo at first. But there he is, tough guy henchman working as J.C.'s muscle as he upends the moneylenders' carts in the Temple.

Thus ends my double-trinity of a list, but I'd like to add a Homily.

I'd hate for my tone to be misjudged as disrespectful, so I figure this is as good (and possibly only) time as any to suggest three films that, I think, portray the Catholic faith in a wonderful and fascinating light. I strongly endorse you check out these three films:

Into Great Silence (2005). Directed by Philip Groning

A mesmerizing and relentless direct cinema portrayal of Carthusian monks going about their business in a monastery in the French Alps. Think of it like a liturgical “Koyaanisqatsi.”

Of Gods and Men (2011). Directed by Xavier Beavois

My favorite film of 2011, this based-on-fact tragedy is set at a Cistercian monastery in Algeria as that country underwent a violent revolution. It is a staggering, heartbreaking look at the men behind the cloth, and the absolute, undeniable power that faith can bring.

The Exorcist (1973). Directed by William Friedkin

Forget Regan MacNeil, forget the pea soup and the vulgarity. This is Father Karras (Jason Miller's) story, and, albeit a bit over-the-top, a touching film about sacrifice and piety. Watch this movie enough and you'll recognize the best parts are all about Karras and the guilt he feels about his mother (yes, in that regard, it remains a horror flick).