NEW YORK (CNS) — With the attention of so much of the press focused on Pope Francis during his historic journey to Cuba and the U.S. this month, it’s interesting to reflect on the image of the papacy generated by those whose job it is — or has been — to entertain rather than inform.

Free of the obligation to hew closely to the facts, filmmakers have created a grab bag of fictional or semi-historic pontiffs with characters ranging from the irritable to the saintly.

“The Shoes of the Fisherman” — director Michael Anderson’s 1968 adaptation of Morris L. West’s novel — is one of the few Hollywood movies to feature a pope as its central character. In fact, the film is largely the imaginary biography of Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn).


Released from a Soviet work camp in Siberia, Lakota travels to Rome, is made a cardinal against his will, then participates in the conclave that — to his even greater dismay — winds up electing him Pope Kiril I.

Earnest and somber, with an almost apocalyptic Cold War atmosphere swirling in its background, the picture presents the humble but rather dour Kiril in a thoroughly positive light. Yet the film’s perspective on the church as a whole — not to mention world affairs — is naive to say the least.

As a sort of bonus, “Shoes” features John Gielgud as Kiril’s unnamed predecessor. Austere, magisterial, a pontiff of the old school, Gielgud’s bishop of Rome registers as a combination of Pius XII and the kind of conservative-minded English lord readers are likely to encounter in the pages of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope.

The protagonist of the 2011 Italian production “We Have a Pope” (“Habemus Papam”) occupies the opposite end of the spectrum of possible pontiffs. Friendly but faint-hearted, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) reacts to his election by suffering a nervous breakdown and fleeing the Vatican.

Director and co-writer Nanni Moretti then has his overwhelmed pope wander the streets of Rome in search of guidance and reassurance.

Like the simplistic designs of Pope Kiril, however, this hardly original idea of “liberating” the successor of Peter — or any other authority figure — from the cocoon of his surroundings so that he can drink in the wisdom of the people leads, on a little reflection, to an intellectual and aesthetic dead-end.

A more complex picture of the papacy can be found in the fact-based artistic drama “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Director Carol Reed’s 1965 screen version of Irving Stone’s historical novel pits Charlton Heston’s tempestuous Michelangelo against Rex Harrison’s fierce Pope Julius II as the two collaborate uneasily over the redecoration of the Sistine Chapel.

Accurately portrayed as a worldly warrior pope, Julius is hardly the modern ideal of a global pastor. Yet his achievements as a patron of the arts are undeniable. In fact, the world is reminded of those accomplishments every time the cardinals gather in conclave — as they did two-and-a-half years ago for the election of Pope Francis — with Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes gazing down from them from on high.


Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.