What to make of last year's onslaught of Francismania? Like the sucker for pop-culture phenomenons I am, I haven't enjoyed anything so much since the Harry Potter books took off. As a veteran secular humanist, I can't help feeling some simpatico with the killjoys striving to remind us that the first Pope in memory to rate an affectionate New Yorker cover still presides over an essentially reactionary organization whose core doctrines haven't changed. But all the same, screw it: they're messing with everybody else's good time. Those of us without a dogma in this hunt just dig waiting for Pope Frank's next Bob Newhart-ish "He said that??" surprise, even as we relish the consternation he's provoked in everybody from Rush Limbaugh—"pure Marxism," the great man flatulated—to Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who fretted that Francis doesn't understand how good rich Americans are. Cardinal Timothy Dolan had to reassure Langone that the latest Pontiff does indeed love his flock's gazillionaires.
More entertaining yet—well, speculatively, anyhow—is the discomfiture Pope Frank must be causing inside the Vatican itself. The Curia's members aren't renowned for spontaneous singalongs of "He's A Rebel," after all. In what may be a first, a Vatican spokesman "corrected" the boss's heretical view that atheists aren't necessarily excluded from heaven by explaining that the Pope was no theologian and was just trying to make the likes of me feel good before we're engulfed in hell's flames. It was like one of those gambling-tip disclaimers saying "For entertainment purposes only."
Since I'm not only a nonbeliever but a Prot by cultural inheritance, my interest in the Catholic Church is purely aesthetic and political. So my own small tribute to Francismania over the holidays was to revisit the lone American movie about Catholicism that takes zero interest, pro or con, in the existence of God.
That would be Otto Preminger's 1964 The Cardinal, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Future novelist Tom Tryon—as legend has it, Otto more or less scared him off acting—plays Boston-born Stephen Fermoyle, earmarked for the priesthood since infancy and looking pretty haggard about it in a miscast-linebacker sort of way. During the decades the storyline covers—approximately, from America's entry into World War I to the cradle days of World War II—Fermoyle rises from promising newbie in a collar to Prince of the Church, never quite losing the mulish "What am I doing here?" look in his eyes. On my third or fourth viewing since my besotted but clueless first encounter on TV at a tender age, I've decided it's an infinitely better movie than Preminger's fans give it credit for being.
Sure, the plot is on the gaudy side. The guided tour of 20th-century horrors, from the Ku Klux Klan to the rise of the Nazis, has a whiff of If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Meanwhile, Fermoyle hurtles from one private crisis to the next, letting his sister die in childbirth rather than permit an abortion—he's put up with her wanting to marry a Jewish fella, but there are limits—and dallying with Romy Schneider in Vienna during a leave of absence from the priesthood. Yet the storyline's melodrama is one thing, and Preminger's tone—engrossed but detached, more into scrutiny than emotionalism, and fundamentally uninterested in Fermoyle's personality except as a useful cog by which to judge a machine—is another. The movie is one of his cool-eyed studies of how institutions work, maybe not on a par with Advise & Consent (still the best movie made about the U.S. Senate) but less uneven than In Harm's Way (which dissected the military).
Preminger's view of the Church is that there's nothing unworldly—let alone otherworldly—about it. As different as they are in style, Fermoyle's two mentors—John Huston as a roguish American cardinal and Raf Vallone as his cosmopolitan Vatican counterpart—are both shrewd operators who know the system inside and out and use it to advance their pet causes and agendas. The only member of the clergy who behaves in more or less the humble, self-sacrificing way Jesus recommended is Burgess Meredith as a poor parish priest, and the movie admires him for it while recognizing that, in the game of advancement everybody else is playing, he's a loser.
Even so, The Cardinal isn't an attack on religion, something Preminger would find as pointless as assailing the weather. When he gets interested in any man-made enterprise, he could usually care less what its ostensible purpose is—and while the faithful may take "man-made" as an insult, it isn't one to him. Nonetheless, the movie could never be filmed today, adding to its already considerable uniqueness. I can't help wondering if the future Francis learned the value of biding his time from seeing it as a young priest.