THAT WAS THEN. So I woke up in the middle of the night and flicked on TCM. And there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, the 1968 Michael Anderson-lensed (as they say in Variety) adaptation of the famous Morris West novel about the ascension of the first Eastern European Pope.

I was transfixed. I remember both novel and film being much discussed in my house when I was a kid, although I don�t really remember anyone�s opinions. I think I recall my late, beloved Aunt Vicky, who was the devout Catholic among our extended clan, speaking of it approvingly. Which is interesting for the following reasons.

TSOTF struck me as having, very clearly, a liberal message -- a subtle piece of propaganda that was pro-Catholic (reverent attitude toward the ceremonies of the Church) but that must have been, at the time, egging its audience to embrace Vatican II and change in general. Pope Kiril I, played with a certain appealingly leaden steadiness by Anthony Quinn, announces at his investiture (forgive me if that�s the wrong word) that what he�s decided to do as Pope is�sell off all church property and holdings to feed the world�s poor! On the side, there�s a character named Father Telemond who is obviously modeled on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, every liberal Catholic�s favorite theologian back then. Telemond is censured for his heterodox writings, but Kiril is secretly compassionate toward him, and he is portrayed sympathetically by Oskar Werner.

In Googling around today, I notice that conservative Catholics try to take some credit for West -- because the liberal literary elite sneered at him (undoubtedly true and possibly deserved), and because, in the character of Kiril, he �predicted� the arrival of John Paul II (there is a certain Cold War subplot as well). But it looks to me like West was on our side. In an NPR interview in 1996 (I got it through Nexis so I don�t have a link), he told Liane Hansen that he considered the then-current state of Catholic affairs �a dangerous time for the Church.�

While TSOTF is definitely not what you�d call a great film, it is indeed a great period piece, and it�s actually good in that Technicolor, over-baked, and �exploratory� way of many 1960s mainstream films that tried to grapple with �issues� in a middle-brow manner, provided the grappling did not get too in the way of the period cinematic stylings (The Comedians, which starred Dick and Liz and was based on Graham Greene, comes to mind).

Anybody know about West? Anyway, this is highly recommended when you�re in the right kitschy mood. Sadly, it�s impossible to imagine a Catholic message movie today in which the Pope decrees anything like what Pope Quinn decreed.

--Michael Tomasky