'Pope Must Die' finds silly comedy within Vatican's sacred portals

September 13, 1991|By Clifford Terry | Clifford Terry,Chicago Tribune

Despite its provocatively misleading title, "The Pope Must Die" is a British spoof that tries to send up the Roman Catholic hierarchy the way that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams send up airplane-disaster films and police academies. One wonders why they didn't call it "Vatican!"

(Actually, the distributor is now calling it "The Pope Must Diet" in ads because some media outlets have refused to print the original.)

The film starts off with the demise of the present Holy Father. The conclave of cardinals is unable to decide on a charismatic successor (photogenic wouldn't hurt either) until Cardinal Rocco Alex Rocco) -- a wheeler-dealer who's in charge of the church's finances -- proposes a humble priest working with lepers in Africa. But because of an error by a hard-of-hearing clerk, a priest with a similarly sounding name is chosen instead: a one-time auto mechanic, Father Albinizi (Robbie Coltrane), working with orphans in a small Italian village. Chubby and clumsy, he arrives in Rome and points out that "the strange stirring of the Holy Spirit" was a mistake, but no one wants to hear it.

Albinizi subsequently makes the cover of Time magazine, checks out the opulent papal bedroom (which includes a well-stocked bar) and sets up an orphan-relief fund. Thanks to his main ally, a priest who was once road manager for the Sex Pistols, he also learns of in-house financial shenanigans. Suddenly -- perhaps miraculously -- the country bumpkin metamorphoses into a crimestopper, until a surprising revelation about his past turns him into a juicy target for the tabloids.

For the first half, "The Pope Must Die," shot in Yugoslavia, is intermittently amusing, with its nice throwaway lines, a hilarious recurring bit involving a cynical CNN reporter and a frenetic performance by Mr. Rocco as the outrageously sleazy cardinal, who looks like a pit boss at Vegas and tries to pick up women with the line, "Hey, honey, you want to meet the pope?"

But too much of the humor is based on broad sight gags and ecclesiastical types uttering profanities or using "worldly" idioms, and by the second half the lines fall flat and the seemingly truncated movie becomes merely silly.

Obviously, a number of people will object to all of this -- some already have -- but they needn't worry. As successful satire, "The Pope Must Die" mostly sends up black smoke.

'The Pope Must Die'

Starring Robbie Coltrane

Directed by Peter Richardson

Released by Miramix

Rated R

... **

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