Anthony Quinn plays Kiril Lakota, a Russian Catholic archbishop who has recently been released from the gulag where he was imprisoned and taken to live in Vatican City. Through a remarkable set of circumstances, he quickly becomes a cardinal and then pope -- a very reluctant pope who draws his strength not from isolation or seclusion, but from being in and surrounded by the lives of others. He is a man who is conflicted about his role in the church and on the global stage, and while being confronted by the problems of the world manages to directly impact the lives of a few: a doctor who is suffering through a marriage that is falling apart; a priest who is under investigation for writings on the idea of a "cosmic Christ" that are out of the norm and potentially heretical and who is dealing with a far more serious issue; a cardinal questioning the wisdom of some of the decisions made by Pope Kiril and possessing a jealousy of those with a closer relationship to the pontiff than he enjoyed.
There are many compelling scenes in the movie and some amazing dialogue (which I assume comes from the Morris West novel on which this is based, although I've never read it). I'm particularly fascinated by the theology espoused by Father Telemond during his interrogation by the Vatican commission investigating him; some samples:
Question: What think you of Christ, Father? Who is he?
Answer: He is the point to which all of evolution is tending. He is the point at which all of the universe must arrive, as the spokes of a wheel arrive at the center. He is the universe summed up; he is the cosmic Christ.
Question: Father Telemond, it is written in the scripture, "Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and the same forever. Are you not creating a Christ of your own?
Answer: I am not creating him; I am revealing a face of him we have not yet seen.
Question: Do you have a private revelation, Father?
Answer: Perhaps I have, eminence. If I have, it is no merit of mine; indeed, it is a torment for me. I cannot renounce this Christ whom I see, anymore than I can renounce him who hangs on the cross.
Question: You put us in great trouble; much of what you have said and written is of extraordinary depth and beauty. Much of it is still unclear and as you have seen, puzzling to us. It would help if you would give us one clear statement of what you believe.
Answer: I believe in a personal God; I believe in Christ; I believe in the Spirit. But if by some perilous internal revolution I lost my faith in God, in Christ, and in the Spirit, I think I still would believe in the world. Yes, I do believe in the world -- in the goodness of the world, the values of the world. That in the final analysis is the first and the last thing in which I believe. This faith I live by, and it is to this faith that at the moment of death, mastering all doubts, I shall surrender myself.
This entire movie, through every character and every plot line, explores how we see ourselves, how we see our place in the world, and how we see our relationship to God and to Christ. It's deeply moving, deeply theological, and very challenging -- without once losing an iota of its great story and emotional and visual beauty.
I can't remember when I first saw this film; I had to have been a young child. Its hold on me has never lessened in the years since, and I discover something new every time I watch it. Out of all of the roles Quinn played in his long career, Kiril is my favorite, and the performances by Leo McKern (known by most in his role as Rumple of the Bailey), Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Oskar Werner (who gives his own outstanding performance as the investigated priest; you should also check him out in "Fahrenheit 451"), and several others make it an outstanding movie well worth the watching.
Five stars out of five on the rating scale.