Tuesday, February 20, 2007


SAVING GRACE (1985, USA, Robert M. Young, wr Richard Kramer, Joaquin Montana, David S. Ward; Celia Gittelson novel)
I tell you this because it's a good story. There was once a man, known to all of you as Pope Leo XIV. Like a king who lived in a large castle with thick walls, he became increasinngly depressed and alone, unable to see, far less to know, the people who looked to him for guidance...

People love this little fairy tale of a film. Just try bidding for a copy on eBay, and watch the price soar to the heavens. I'm imagining priests all over the world recommending this one to their parishioners, Catholic families gathering around the TV to take in this sweet, simple story about an AWOL pope.

You're guessing by now this isn't the Brenda Blethyn one about a Brit widow who grows dope to make ends meet. You're guessing right. This is the Tom Conti one about (fictional) Pope Leo XIV, a reluctant neo-pontiff who grows tired of the politics and insularity of his new position. Taking a few quiet moments in the open air, he puts his head back to feel the raindrops on his face: a black-suited security man opens an umbrella above him and ushers him inside. It's all bankers, politicians, and hurried back-to-back blessings of politicos, invalids and soccer teams.

So one day, puttering in the papal garden, Leo slips out a back gate and blends in with the soccer crowds.

But what to do now? Well, even a pope can be a sucker for a pretty face. This one belongs to Isabella, a deaf girl of about fourteen who has made the trip to the Vatican all alone, to beg His Holiness to send a priest to her village. So Leo makes his way to Montepetro and, incognito, sets out to make a difference.

I'm curious to know what an uncredited David S. Ward contributed to this nifty little screenplay: while this was the feature film debut for the other writers, Ward was responsible for a wide range of noteworthy scripts, from THE STING and MAJOR LEAGUE to SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, and also – right after this one – THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, which bears some similarities. SAVING GRACE has none of the twists and turns of THE STING: it lays out its story in straightforward fashion, moving along at the easy-going pace of a sun-besotted Italian village.

But the quiet in this town isn't peaceful: what's happening here isn't mere leisure, it's something closer to one of the deadly sins. The men of Montepetro have made a macho virtue of surly inactivity: some are involved in petty crime, but mostly they sit around drinking and smoking, while the women and children pick rags at a nearby town's dump.

When asked his name, Leo – a very bad liar – says he is "Francesco," and indeed there is something of Saint Francis in way this gentle, resolute men sets aside the trappings of wealth and power to join the townspeople in their poverty and toil. When he walks into the ruins of the Montepetro church, it seems certain his first task will be to rebuild the sanctuary, a latter-day St. Damian's: but no, there's as much liberation theology as Franciscan piety in this Francesco. It's the town's neglected aqueduct he puts his hand to, though he knows nothing of carpentry or engineering: he's just as interested in bringing real water as living water to this parched community.

The story progresses predictably, but you know, I didn't mind. The pleasures of SAVING GRACE are the pleasures of visiting an Italian stone village that must be a thousand years old. It's 112 minutes in the unhurried presence of Tom Conti's winsome, compassionate Holy Father – in a series of warm, lovable roles in Catholic-friendly films, this is his definitive performance, a real pleasure. Leo-on-the-lam isn't much good with a hammer and can't drive a car, he has little patience with Vatican politics, but his true vocation shows itself just spending time with people, talking. His scenes with Giuliano (Angelo Evans) are the real sparkle in this jewel of a story, and it's a delight watching respect and friendship grow between this not-quite-teen-aged mafioso-in-training and His Holiness-in-hiding. Giancarlo Giannini (at a career transition between playing atheist communist hard-cases for Lina Wertmuller, and popes and priests in films like SHADOW DANCER and JOSHUA?) is perfectly cast as a shepherd tending both sheep and goats, the world-weary foil to Leo's patient faith. On first meeting, he cuts through Leo's charade to get to the heart of things;
"You're Pope Leo, huh? You're pop Leo, yes. Excuse the sheep, they see so few popes. They fired you or what?"
"No, they didn't fire me. Maybe God did...."
"I can put your mind to rest on that. There's no such person."

I don't think that particular question is ever really in doubt in SAVING GRACE, and neither is the story's destination, toward which it patiently meanders. If any of that sounds like a problem, don't go to the trouble of seeking out this hard-to-find video (still not available on DVD, who knows why, there's money to be made). But if a frankly sentimental film about the Prince of the Church trying to rediscover the heart of his calling sounds like it might appeal, maybe you'll be one of those folks that come to count this unpreposessing little film among your heartfelt favourites.

Incidentally, there's papal precedent for Leo's vocational qualms. "As long as I lived in my cell in the monastery, I felt safe for my salvation. When I was appointed Bishop, my certainty began to fade, and, as Pope, I am not safe at all about my salvation." Pope St. Pius V


No comments: