Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Scarlet and the Black: a Review

The literary crew over at Korrektiv have been celebrating this Year for Priests with a multiblog project: 52 Movies for the Year of the Priest. I initially volunteered to review The Massacre in Rome, but that movie is still sitting in my NetFlix queue marked "short wait."*

I slipped The Scarlet and the Black into my NetFlix queue as a second option, given that the that first has yet to appear. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from it. When it showed up in my mailbox, I wanted to watch it and send it back as soon as possible. So I plugged it in, only to discover that it’s lead and supporting roles were filled by two of my favorites: Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer. I couldn’t just give this a cursory viewing, so I set it aside for the weekend, and I’m happy I did.

The movie is based on the book The Scarlett Pimpernel of the Vatican by J.P. Gallagher, the true story behind the film. It opens in Nazi-occupied Rome in 1943. A boxing monsignor named Hugh O’Flaherty (Peck) has been helping escaped prisoners of war and Jews to hide from the invaders. While the movie begins in and around the Vatican, the flavor is less one of a religious epic and more an espionage film. Msgr. O’Flaherty is adept at skirting the Nazi authorities and hiding escaped prisoners in their midst. The Holy Father, Pius XII (played by Sir John Gielgud), encourages the priest in his efforts, but makes clear that his ability to protect him outside the walls of the Vatican are limited. A side note here is that this portrayal of Pius XII shows no hint of the scandalous figure so commonly trotted out in the media but of an experienced diplomat who has no love for the Nazis in any sense, yet struggles with which risks to take. The monsignor also struggles with these risks as the Nazis tighten the noose around the Vatican.

While the Catholic setting is never downplayed, the religious dimension really doesn’t become pronounced until midway into the movie. The priests are not perfect, saintly types but real flesh and blood, flawed men—but faithful to their calling, sometimes to the point of torture and death. Msgr. O’Flaherty makes no bones about his antipathy for the British, noting that schoolmates of his had been shot by Black and Tans during the Irish revolution. Yet he assists them anyway. Pius also shows signs of human frailty, reminding O’Flaherty of the threats to the material wealth of the Church and the priest’s own life. It takes the Irish priest’s example to help Pius to recognize the true cost and true value of this work. During the close, O’Flaherty comes face to face with his own weakness when his enemy, the mastermind of so much suffering, seeks him out for aid.

The Scarlet and the Black doesn’t give us caricatures or two-dimensional sanctimonious images of the priesthood but an image of service and sacrifice by imperfect but holy men.

*As it turns out, The Massacre in Rome appears to present a rather unsympathetic portrayal of Pius XII, diametrically opposite of the portrayal in The Scarlet and the Black.

Overall grade: A+
Priest factor: A+
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