Picks and Pans Review: The Pope Must Die

UPDATED 09/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

Robbie Coltrane, Alex Rocco

That title, for what is essentially a comedy, is so foolishly provocative that the creators of this film have only themselves to blame if the protests it has generated—leading to refusals to run ads for the movie in some cases—hurt their business.

The Godfather Part III, for instance, had a subplot about similar Vatican corruption, but, without the we-dare-you-Catholics-not-to-complain title, it escaped criticism—on that count, anyway.

While this film's plot is about a pope, the movie is hardly anti-Papacy or anti-Catholic; nobody in the story threatens a pope physically in any way. Director Peter Richardson is himself a Catholic, and the satirical element of the movie is aimed at what he sees as corruption in the Vatican, not at the Vatican's existence.

Coltrane (Nuns on the Run) plays a simple priest who, through a bookkeeping error, is made pope. First he goes through the predictable jokes about how overwhelmed he is by his surroundings—he is so hungry after going through a series of ceremonial functions that he gobbles down a box of communion wafers. Then he stumbles onto an embezzlement scheme run by Rocco, a golf-obsessed cardinal, and Herbert Lom, an Italian arms dealer. It's all a holy variation on King Ralph.

The cast is a mixed bunch. As an old girlfriend from Coltrane's prevow days, Beverly D'Angelo is characteristically quirky. (If they're worth nothing else, and they aren't, those National Lampoon vacation movies have at least liberated D'Angelo to make oddball films like this one.) Paul Bartel overacts egregiously as a spineless Vatican factotum, Balthazar Getty shows up as a British rock star, and Richardson himself plays a prelate-administrator who helps Coltrane. Coltrane is a skilled comedian, but he has a hard time adjusting to the rapid transitions from slapstick, where he's falling all over himself in his new papal robes, to serious melodrama involving the death of someone close to him.

Richardson's directorial approach (he also cowrote the script with Peter Richens) is so broad and the pace so herky-jerky that the film seems silly more often than amusing or pointed or even offensive.

As penance. Richardson should say a few Hail Marys and rent Life of Brian so he can see how to make a witty, religion-oriented satire that's worthy of the righteous indignation it inspires. (R)

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