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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. He is brought to Rome by Fr. David Telemond, a troubled young priest who befriends him. Once at the Vatican, he is immediately given an audience with the Pope, who elevates him to Cardinal Priest. The world is on the brink of war due to a Chinese-Soviet feud made worse by a famine caused by trade restrictions brought against China by the U.S. When the Pontiff suddenly dies, Lakota's genuine character and unique life experience move the College of Cardinals to elect him as the new Pope. But Pope Kiril I must now deal with his own self-doubt, the struggle of his friend Fr. Telemond who is under scrutiny for his beliefs, and find a solution to the crisis in China. Written by
Technically, this is not a great film, but I'm still a sucker for Shoes of the Fisherman. I love its idealism. As a Catholic, I love the vision of courage that this film holds out for the Church -- it is the way I wish it really were. This film has an epic quality to it, with expansive, lavish settings and a rich texture. This is one of the few films I can watch again and again and enjoy every time.
This movie is not without its flaws. The editing is awkward and the film could have been tightened a bit (okay, a lot!). One of the things that bugs me is how the character of Cardinal Rinaldi (the Vatican Secretary of State played by Vittorio De Sica, who is pivotal in the early part of the movie) disappears in the second half without any explanation.
Also, the sub-plot with David Janssen as a philandering television reporter is annoying and superfluous. His only redeeming contribution is in how, during his reports, he provides good exposition about the traditions involved in burying one pope and electing the next.
But these things pale next to Oskar Werner's wonderful, understated perfomance as a philosopher/archeologist/priest who becomes friends with the soon-to-be Pope Kiril. (This character, Fr. David Telemond, is clearly based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) The relationship of suspicion and affection between these two men is very engaging.
Werner has one of the best lines in the film when, after his character is censored by a pontifical commission, he says, "The Church. I hate her, still I cannot leave her. I love her, still I cannot live in her in peace." I think that line is beautiful and sums up the way many Catholics feel!
Finally, I have to say that I am not a big Anthony Quinn fan. I usually found him to be hammy. (I think he got a little too much mileage out of his Zorba schtick!) But in this film, he is wonderfully restrained. He gives a soulful performance as a reluctant hero who has suffered much and now only wants to be left in peace, but who also feels the call of his God and his fellow human beings. In my opinion, even though it is largely ignored by the critics, Quinn gave his best performance in Shoes of the Fisherman.
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