Brash, handsome, ruthless, reckless, ambitious, brilliant and corrupt: these are the thrillingly paper thin qualities undoubtedly possessed by Father John Flaherty in the novel upon which ”Monsignor” is based. As played by a more or less real person (Christopher Reeve), Father Flaherty cannot help but lose some of his two-dimensional luster.
Still, ”Monsignor” manages to make itself the most extravagant piece of Hollywood junk since ”Mommie Dearest,” for which the producer Frank Yablans and the director Frank Perry were also responsible. Mr. Yablans also produced ”The Other Side of Midnight,” a schlock masterpiece in whose unwittingly hilarious tradition ”Monsignor” follows. Mr. Yablans didn’t even need to read the French novel by Jack Alain Leger; according to production notes, he ”fell in love with the concept” and decided to make ”Monsignor” on the basis of an English synopsis. Here’s a man who knows what he likes.
Production notes for ”Monsignor,” which opens today at Loew’s State and other theaters, maintain that the film cannot be accused of savaging the Vatican. This is the same logic by which ”Mommie Dearest” was not unkind to Joan Crawford. Father Flaherty, this sacrilegious story’s main character, is a monumentally crooked priest, and the Church appears to condone his every trespass. A few sticklers object to his black-marketing, his fornicating, his Mafia ties and the like, but most Church officials regard him as a real gogetter. By the end of the story, even the Pope has learned of this priest’s corruption, yet Flaherty remains a key figure in the Church’s business affairs.
Audiences, should they decide to stay, will wonder all through ”Monsignor” why none of Flaherty’s sins brings him a job change, not to mention a well-aimed bolt of lightning. From innocently jitterbugging at a friend’s wedding, he graduates swiftly to firing a gun in battle, proposing a Mafia-linked black market operation using church funds, and seducing a postulant nun with scruples much like his own. The love affair between Flaherty and Clara (Genevieve Bujold) is the movie’s comic centerpiece, from their tentative rendezvous in a shop selling religious articles to a scene in which Flaherty, pretending to be a non-clerical Army officer, lures Clara to a seduction den filled with illicit Campbell’s soup and Hershey bars. Clara looks troubled, even reluctant, when she first spies the silken-draped bed. ”I only have an hour,” she says.
The other Sisters, she tells Flaherty, ”don’t think my reasons for leaving ordinary life are profound enough. They doubt my commitment. Do you think they are” – she wriggles out of her blouse as she says this – ”right?” Absolutely not. Has a group of nuns ever been so unreasonable?
Soon Clara and Flaherty are on a Roman rooftop, with – such is the measure of the film’s symbolic deftness – the Vatican dome right smack between them. ”How can your aunt leave this apartment?” Flaherty asks of Clara, who is subletting. The conversation soon turns to more serious matters. ”You have a secret – I feel it!” cries Clara. ”I’m living with a need to tell you something I can’t tell,” says Flaherty. ”Let it out!” Clara hollers. This exchange drew much applause and merriment from a preview audience, as did the next scene, in which Flaherty and Clara bump into each other at a Papal audience. When she sees Flaherty in his clerical robes, Clara stops in her tracks, creating a traffic jam among the other nuns and doing one of the longest, craziest double-takes in movie history.
Mr. Reeve runs into trouble at the most basic level of acting, namely script-reading: this is one he should have passed right by. Father Flaherty is an unplayable pulp fiction character at best, and he’s meant to have a mean, calculating streak that’s way off base for the guileless-looking Mr. Reeve. Everyone else in the film is cast physically to type, which makes the star seem even more outstandingly out of place; though he’s meant to be the crook of the piece, he appears too much an innocent in the midst of a surly-looking supporting cast. The Pope himself is played by a tiny, wizened actor, Leonard Cimino, who (as a rude but not inaccurate person in the preview audience remarked) bears a resemblance to E.T.
Among the other supporting players are Jason Miller, graduating from Exorcist to Mafia don; Fernando Rey, as a gently dishonest Cardinal; Joe Cortese, offering a stock, hand-waving Italian-American caricature as an obnoxious pal from Flaherty’s boyhood; and Tomas Milian, nastily effective as Flaherty’s arch-enemy within the Church.
The Roman scenery looks wonderful. The small Italian villages are suitably populated with boys in knee pants and peasants driving donkey carts. The screenplay is by Abraham Polonsky and Wendell Mayes. It’s not clear whether one or both of them wrote the line ”You’re a very ambitious man and that’s a very ambitious plan,” which is the kind of thing that either makes a film avoidable or makes it a must, depending on what you’re after.
1.46GB | 2h 01m | 853×480 | mkv