Tuesday, January 29, 2008
If The Shoes of the Fisherman Fit....
Oskar Werner (1922-1984)
Sunday Night I could not sleep. I decided to go into the tv room after tossing and turning. My brother was just going to bed, it was the wee small hours. There, just coming on, "In the Shoes of the Fisherman" a film which had been critically acclaimed in its day(1968). I couldn't stop watching. My parents took my brother and I to see it when it was just out, and it was consider a very important movie with some of the great actors of the time.Anthony Quinnplayed Kiril Lakota who becomes Kiril I, the first non Italian Pope in 400 years. I recall our teacher in fifth grade talking about it in school. It made a big impact because it dealt with the premier fear of the time, the threat of nuclear war.
Oskar Werner played David Telemond, a young radical priest patterned after Tielhard de Chardin.Werner won an Oscar for the part, he always reminded me of a young William Buckley, William Buckley Jr. jr. In fact Buckley was pretty young back then so he was more like his kid brother than his son. In supporting roles were Lawrence Oliver, one of the greatest actors of all time, Directed by Michael Anderson. It was a fine film, perhaps a great one, and totally forgotten. Greatness is always forgotten. The film strangely foreshadowed real life as the first non Italian pope in 400 years was chosen from a communist country. He had been a political prisoner for twenty years. Chosen because he was a Russian, would be willing to stand up to them, and thus acceptable to the West, but had experience dealing with the Soviets and understood their thinking. At the time he is chosen a crisis is percipient between The Soviet Union and China. In real life at the time these two communist comrade states were having boarder disputes, shots were fired people were killed. In the film, China is in a deep famine and three provinces are starving. The Soviets are saying they will be at war in a two months. They appeal to the pope to act as go between with the West and try to procure food to stave off the famine. China has a huge list of demands for both the USSR and the West. They are not willing to take aid because they don't want to come under the thumb of Western imperialism again, and they suspect that the West will make heavy demands. The Pope steps in and agrees to empty the Vatican coffers to buy the grain for China. This will leave the Vatican broke. The Church hierarchy opposes it but the new pope stands his ground. He announces the move at his coronation in St. Peter's Square, which is filled with a half million people. He says something like "we will do as Christ would do and empty our wealth to feed the starving people." The Crowd goes wild cheering and gives him a great ovation. The Film ends as a slight smile comes across Quinn's face while the people of the world calibrate, the Church is finally doing what it should have done in the middle ages.
The subplot that develops with Telemond, the Oskar Werner character, involves a hearing to determine the soundness of his teaching, and eventually he is silenced.That means he can't publish his works. He could quite and publish them without the blessing of the church but if he wants the blessing of the Church he can't have it. The hearing is brought on by the new Pope who wants Telemond as a private top adviser. He knows the young man is one of the most brilliant theologians of the Church and wants to bring him into the inner circle. But he has a reputation as a radical and his views are suspect, the Pope wants him cleared as soon as possible. But the young priest can't do enough to screw up his own cause. Every time he clears up a seeming unorthodoxy clarifying his position, he then makes more confusing statements that sound even more radical. At one point Leo McKern(Rumpole of the Baily). Cardinal Leone, asks "do you believe that Christ is the son of God?" "certainly I do" he says, "Christ is the center like the hub of a wheel where the spokes meet, he is a microcosm of the whole universe." They all look puzzled and ask "do you believe that Christ is the savior." "certainly I do, but if I did not, I would still believe in the world.. I have a vision of the world that I can't give up. If I did not believe in God I would believe in the world." He goes on to say something to the effect that "Christ is the world." Needless to say they silence him. It's amazing to see Hollywood try to sound like radical theology without doing violence to the ideas of de Chardin.Telemond makes it easy on them and dies of a brain tumor shortly after that. Tielhard de Chardin also died soon after he was silenced and never had the chance to prove himself.
I love this film because it's the very heart and soul of the 60s, it shows the period when theology was the most exciting and really meant something in the world. There will never be a movie like this again. It was a product of a kind of Hollywood that doesn't' exist anymore.It was made at the very tail end of the old Hollywood withthe star machine sysetm, the Hollywood built by Meyer and MGM, just before the "new breed" of films such "Easy Rider" began to emerge. This was the same year "Bonnie and Clyde" came out, that marks the beginning of the new film making. This was A Hollywood that felt duty bound to be somewhat reverential of the Catholic church. It was a Hollywood that made films of great pageantry enacted the world stage. A Hollywood that made socially important pictures about big ideas. It addressed the spirit of the times, fear of nuclear war, the sense that we lived in a very troubled era, and great crises were unfolding every day. I think the world is now so jaded, and so used to that feeling that it doesn't phase us. it's like going to the moon. the first time we did it was amazing and epoch making, the second time it was not so exciting after that the whole idea was rather ho hum. We still live in dangerous times, and great crises are always unfolding, but somehow we've gotten used to it. The Church is still important but it doesn't seem so. We have been brainwashed into thinking of the world as so totally secularized we don't think of the Pope as a major actor on the world stage.
Another amazing thing about this movie is that at this time liberal theology was known to the public. Most people probably did not know any thing that Tielhard de Chardin said, but they knew there were radical liberal theologians who said things like "God is dead" and for so forth. Teilhard was not a God is dead movement theologian but that was the general sense of "crazy radical priests." Liberal theology was known to the public and the basis of the religious establishment was not the moral majority. The fundamentalists changed all of that and their message came to so totally dominate that most people have no ideology that there is liberal theology. The Church doesn't seem to be a major player anymore either.
It's a fine film, I highly recommend it. Two thumbs up.