Under lock and key: Conclaves on screen

NEW YORK - Rich in secrecy and suspense - and endowed with the potential to alter history - the conclave process by which popes have been elected since the 13th century has obvious dramatic appeal.

So it's no surprise that conclaves have occasionally been portrayed on screen. Some depictions have involved real-life elections, others fictional ones - and the accuracy of the details on display has varied greatly.

Ironically, one of the earliest film treatments of a conclave centers on an elector who attempts - but fails - to participate in the momentous event. This is Cardinal Glennon, the imaginary archbishop of Boston played by John Huston in the 1963 movie "The Cardinal."

Director Otto Preminger's screen version of Henry Morton Robinson's novel shows the New England prelate suffering the horrors of seasickness as the progress of the ocean liner on which he's crossing the Atlantic is relentlessly checked by bad weather. By the time Huston's prince of the church finally makes it to Rome, a new pontiff has already been voted into office.

Cardinal Glennon is presumably a stand-in for Beantown's long-reigning shepherd, Cardinal William Henry O'Connell (1859-1944). If so, his disappointment in this instance has a strong basis in fact. Made the Hub's first cardinal by Pope Pius X in 1911, Cardinal O'Connell subsequently missed not one but two conclaves - those of 1914 and 1922.

In the wake of the latter gathering, a frustrated Cardinal O'Connell successfully petitioned the newly elected Pope Pius XI to extend the period between the vacancy of the chair of Peter and the opening of the conclave to fill it.

Perhaps he need not have bothered: By the time of Pius XI's death in 1939, the advent of commercial aviation had reduced the travel time between the East Coast and the Eternal City to a matter of hours, not days. In any event, on that occasion, Cardinal O'Connell finally had the satisfaction of casting his vote.

The protagonist of 1968's "The Shoes of the Fisherman" - director Michael Anderson's adaption of Morris L. West's novel - not only takes part in a papal election; he reluctantly receives its laurels. Thus, shortly after being released from a Soviet work camp in Siberia, Ukrainian Cardinal Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) becomes Pope Kiril I.

Described, in part, by television journalist George Faber (David Janssen), the assembly that elevates Cardinal Kiril is shown in considerable detail. Enduring customs - the defacing of the previous pope's ring, for example - as well as outmoded ones put in an appearance.

A minor instance from the latter category would be the now-abandoned practice of erecting a canopy over the chair of each elector. At precisely the moment that one of their colleagues accepted his election, and thus became pope, all the remaining cardinals would collapse their canopies by pulling on a cord, thereby symbolizing that they were no longer their former peer's equals.

Far more significantly, the manner of Pope Kiril's election would no longer be deemed legitimate. Facing a deadlock among more predictable candidates, the cardinals choose Quinn's character by unanimous acclimation.

This method of spontaneous selection, however, was eliminated by Blessed John Paul II's 1996 apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis." Under the current rules, only election by secret ballot is lawful.

Another fictional conclave opens the 2011 Italian film "Habemus Papam," which screened in the United States last year as "We Have a Pope." Director and co-writer Nanni Moretti blended realistic elements and some credible emotions into his fanciful tale of a freshly minted pontiff (Michel Piccoli) who quickly finds himself emotionally overwhelmed by his new responsibilities.

Especially believable - if rather sobering - is the early scene that allows viewers to overhear the thoughts of all the cardinals assembled the Sistine Chapel. To a man, each silently prays not to be chosen.

Despite its three-hour-plus running time, the made-for-television biography "Paul VI: The Pope in the Tempest" provides only a brief glimpse of the conclave that chose its subject. That may be because Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (Fabrizio Gifuni), the archbishop of Milan, entered the 1963 gathering an obvious favorite.

The first cardinal created by his predecessor, Blessed John XXIII, Cardinal Montini was seen as John's natural heir. So, on screen at least, there's little ado required to make him pope. Two other cardinals simply assure the visibly hesitant cardinal that he is the consensus choice.

As shown in another made-for-television profile, "John XXIII: The Pope of Peace," Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (Ed Asner) - the patriarch of Venice and Cardinal Montini's future patron - was, by contrast, a dark horse going into the 1958 conclave. Perhaps as a result of his long-shot status, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led up to his surprise selection is given considerable attention in this small-screen version of events.

The somewhat Machiavellian tactics employed - both in the run up to the lock-in and during its three-day duration - include dredging up old accusations (as a young clergyman, Cardinal Roncalli had once been suspected of the Modernist heresy) and engaging in subtle deception. Undeniably intriguing, the procedure as a whole is likely to register with audiences as something between a cassock-clad political convention and a well-played game of chess.

If Cardinal Roncalli's 1958 triumph raised eyebrows, Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's election almost precisely 20 years later startled the world.

Though it takes short-cuts with the physical details of the second conclave of 1978 - like having a single cardinal count the votes, rather than the trio of prelates to whom this process is invariably entrusted - the 2005 ABC-TV biopic "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II" does capture what are believed to have been the historic conference's dynamics.

With the cardinals at loggerheads, the need arises for a compromise candidate. Led by Vienna's Cardinal Franz Konig, and reinforced by the adherence of Philadelphia's archbishop, Cardinal John Krol, a movement develops to raise Cardinal Wojtyla (Thomas Kretschmann) to the papal throne.

A second television presentation from the same year, this one from CBS, was simply titled "Pope John Paul II" and starred Jon Voight. It portrays a similar course of conclave events, though here the reasons for choosing Cardinal Wojtyla are specified in the dialogue. They include the future John Paul's youth - at 58, he was the youngest pope elected since Pius IX in 1846 - and his outstanding intellect.

Nearly 35 years later, it will take a plume of white smoke, a peal of bells and an announcement from the central balcony of St. Peter's to indicate whether those same qualities - or others equally significant - played a decisive role in the real-life drama of conclave 2013.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970