Set in a futuristic vision of the late 1980's, Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota is set free after two decades as a political prisoner in Siberia...
Nominated for 2 OSCARS -
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - George W. Davis, Edward C. Carfagno
Best Music, Original Score for a Motion Picture -Alex North
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In 1978 Karol Wojtyla, a Cardinal from Communist-controlled Poland, was elected Pope John Paul II. The election of the first non-Italian Pope since Adrian VI in the Sixteenth Century was a complete surprise to many observers. What could be expected from a man coming from a nation with atheism as a state religion? What would be his impact on the Cold War? For some film fans, however, it may have been seen as a case of life imitating art as Michael Andersonís film The Shoes of the Fisherman explored those same questions a decade earlier.
Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) is a priest who has been a political prisoner in Siberia for refusing to disavow his faith. The Soviet Premier (Laurence Olivier) decides to release Lakota as a gesture of goodwill as relations between the Soviet Union and China are deteriorating. Lakota then travels to Rome where the Pope (John Gielgund) names him a Cardinal. When the Pope dies, Lakota is shockingly elected Pope by the Conclave of Cardinals, and he must not only confront theological questions of a Catholic Church facing modernity but also an increasingly dangerous geopolitical situation.
The most striking aspect of the film is Quinnís performance. In his eyes, you can see a man who is guided by the love in his heart but is painfully aware of the complex problems facing the Church and the world. He has a desire to please people, but not at the cost of his own principles. A lesser actor may have turned Lakota into a plaster of Paris saint, but Quinn avoids this temptation. Even his body language reflects a man who has lived through years of hard labor and imprisonment but has not been broken. Throughout the film, he portrays a man groping through the dark attempting to find his way guided by principles that remain invisible to all except his own conscience.
This struggle is most apparent through his interactions with Father David Telemond (Oskar Werner), an intellectual priest whose ideas have come into conflict with the church hierarchy. Lakota wants to guide Telemond within the Churchís central faiths, but at the same time does not want to extinguish the inner light that guides Telemondís conscience. It is remarkably difficult to confront these types of theological questions, and while some of the questions are tied directly to Catholicism, generally they reflect the philosophical dilemmas all of us face, regardless of religious belief.
The film is also wise in how it views the world outside the walls of the Vatican City. It does not make the mistake of viewing the Communist world as a monolith. In fact, the frictions between the Soviet Union and China drive the major crisis of a Chinese famine, which Lakota must negotiate. Also, Olivier does not play the typical Soviet ruler, as a man spouting Communist ideology, but rather a technical pragmatist who has risen through an arcane political hierarchy. Although the Chinese leader berates him for his lack of ideological zeal, he knows all too well that the burdens of leadership transcend any economic system.
The Shoes of the Fisherman has some significant flaws. Most importantly, itís difficult to imagine even the most practical of Soviet Premiers welcoming the election of a former political prisoner as Pope and using him as the moderator in intense political negotiations. A subplot involving an adulterous American reporter (David Janssen) seems out of place and is dropped halfway through the film with no real resolution. In fact the reporter character only serves a narrative purpose describing for the audiences the Vaticanís traditions. (The film used news footage of Vatican crowds at the election of Pope Paul VI as well.) Finally, the movieís dramatic conclusion trades hard-earned complexity for a simplistic solution. In spite of these drawbacks, the film provides a fascinating view of the Vatican as a world both eternal and of our times.
Of course, the real life Pope John Paul II took a more confrontational stance with the Communist world than his fictional counterpart, and he is widely given credit for playing a role in the Soviet Unionís downfall. In an increasingly secular world, those voices of moral authority still have power beyond their economic or military might. Stalin once famously derided the Popeís secular power asking ďThe Pope? How many divisions does he have?Ē He got his answer.