Fascinating despite flaws, The Shoes of the Fisherman is impossible to watch first of all as a movie. By a strange twist of chance or fate, it demands to be viewed as a curious, at times almost prescient anticipation of the reign of John Paul II, filtered partly through the lens of the Silly Sixties.
Based on the Morris West novel written a decade before the election of Karol Wojtyla, the 1968 film imagines an Eastern European cardinal, a Slav from an Iron Curtain country, who becomes “the first non-Italian pope in 400 years.” Played by Anthony Quinn, the cardinal’s very name, Kiril, is eerily similar to Karol.
The similarities don’t end there. While Kiril Lakota has none of his real-world counterpart’s sense of presence or drama, Kiril places great stock in the power of words to change the world and even the destiny of nations, and makes a memorable speech to that effect during a private summit with two world leaders. This resonates with John Paul II’s faith in the spoken word to move the world — a faith that served him well during his 1979 trip to Poland, when his words helped launch the Solidarity movement, dealing a substantial blow to the Iron Curtain.
Kiril is Russian, not Polish, and when the film opens he has spent 20 years in a Siberian labor camp. For political reasons, Kiril finds himself suddenly released by the Soviet premier (Laurence Olivier) and made a cardinal by the current pope (John Gielgud, who also played Pius XII in The Scarlet and the Black).
The filmmakers realize the rituals of the conclave process and the pageantry of the coronation ceremony with remarkable persuasiveness. The film’s fictional politics stand up to consideration; faux theological debates involving a controversial German priest named Fr. Telemond (think Teilhard de Chardin by way of Hans Küng) are less convincing.
Although Kiril doesn’t emphasize orthodoxy as a major concern, the film strongly emphasizes obedience and submission to authority despite disagreements or objections, whether it is the heterodox Fr. Telemond or the hardline (but ultimately surprisingly sympathetic) Cardinal Leone.
While Telemond is probably the most textured character in the film, Leone ultimately gets the best scene with Pope Kiril, and the best lines in the film as he addresses the loneliness and difficulty of the road that the pope walks alone in the shoes of the fisherman. The climax may turn on a naive conceit, but The Shoes of the Fisherman is well worth a look.
Note: Newly available for the first time on DVD, The Shoes of the Fisherman is available either singly or as part of the “Films of Faith” box set, which also includes The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima and The Nun’s Story.
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The Exorcist review needs “Satanic forces” upper-cased “S”, as do all name-based words. The Shoes of the Fisherman needs references to the Telemond character to delete “German” since this role was based on a French priest whose works were under suspicion.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.