Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Higher Calling

Film: The Cardinal
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I can’t say I was fully down with watching The Cardinal. Religious epics often leave me cold in the first place, and a three-hour long film of what promises to be an apologetic for the Catholic Church appeals to me not at all. But, a film list is a film list, and when this shows up on the top of the queue, it’s time to give it a watch. This is, more or less, that three-hour apologetic that I was dreading, but there are some really great moments here, or at least some interesting ones.

As the film starts, Bishop Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon), a good Irish-Catholic boy from Boston, is being made a cardinal, hence the name of the film. We get a few returns to this moment through the film and we end here, but the bulk of the film is told in flashback as Fermoyle recalls the events that took him from seminary student to parish priest to a high position in Holy Mother Church.

The tremendous length of the film is probably what leads it to be told in a series of episodes. The goal, always present, is to get Stephen Fermoyle back to Rome and his ordination as a cardinal, so most of the various episodes stand alone. There are callbacks at times—people present in one part of the narrative show up later on—but each section that flashes to the present at the end essentially is its own discrete story.

We start with Stephen leaving Rome just before World War I, having been given a position back home. At home, he discovers that his sister Mona (Carol Lynley) is committing the terrible sin of dating a Jew named Benny Rampell (John Saxon). Mona, who has always been a favorite of Father Stephen, really wants his blessing, but he won’t give it without a few specific things happening. He wants Benny to convert to Catholicism, or, barring that, to agree to raise any children as Catholics and not stand in the way of their, for lack of a better way to put it, indoctrination. Benny actually thinks about converting, and an apparent miracle in the church seems to have him leaning even more that way. However, the “miracle” of a bleeding statue turns out to be caused by a broken water pipe. Benny is turned off in a large way because this “miracle” turns out to have a mundane cause, but Stephen refuses to tell the parishioners, since it is his view that it’s no less a miracle despite why it happened.

This causes a change in Mona, who runs off, becomes promiscuous(!), gets pregnant, and eventually dies in childbirth. In fact, she dies in childbirth because she is too far along in labor for a Caesarian, and the only way she will survive is the death of the child—and it’s Father Stephen who refuses to save Mona from what could only be a truly horrifying death. He also butts heads with Cardinal Glennon (John Huston, nominated for a supporting Oscar) only to discover that Glennon was pushing him to help him rise in the clerisy, eventually taking him on as his secretary.

We also get a crisis of faith, which involves him leaving the formal priesthood for a couple of years and falling in love with a student named Annemarie (Romy Schneider). However, he doesn’t break his vows and returns to the priesthood.

There’s plenty more, of course. We get a whole story about Father Willis (Ossie Davis), a black priest in Georgia who has had his church burned down and whose superior will not let African-American children into the local Catholic school. This involves Father Fermoyle in the racism problem in the South and gets him a whipping at the hands of the KKK. He’s eventually rescued by one of the members who whipped him (Murray Hamilton). And, no film about the Catholic Church of this time would be complete without having Father Fermoyle deal on some level with the rise of Hitler in Germany.

The biggest problem with The Cardinal is that it is that three-hour apologetic that I feared. While it’s the actions of Father Fermoyle to involve the church in the racial problems in the American South, the church ultimately does take the position he wants it to, and it’s implied that this is what gets him his final promotion. He is wracked with guilt about the death of his sister, but the presence of her daughter (also played by Carol Lynley) seems to right that ordeal in his mind—it is ultimately seen as having been the right choice.

The biggest issue, though, is the dealings with Nazi Germany. Yes, there was some persecution of the church in Germany at that time, but it’s also true that Hitler’s first treaty was signed with the Vatican, and that the church was often a supporter of his policies. It’s true that anti-Semitism was a tenet of the church until the 1960s. But that’s not going to come out in a film that was partially funded by the Vatican, is it? One wonders (okay, I wonder) how this might have played had the child abuse scandal been known at the time of the film's release.

Tom Tryon is decent in the role, and that’s good because he’s on screen for virtually the entire film. It was nice to see Burgess Meredith in a small role, too. But for me, John Huston’s blustery, no-nonsense hard ass role is the reason to see this. He’s not in it nearly enough.

I’ll give the film the fact that it moves pretty well and doesn’t always feel like it’s 179-minute length. But at the same time, I’ll suggest that this isn’t a film I plan on watching again. There’s not enough here, especially for that time commitment.

Why to watch The Cardinal: John Huston is bad ass.
Why not to watch: Three hours of episodes.


  1. I watched this long ago and thought it was turgid then, I can't image the years have been overly kind. I watched the whole thing but at a certain point I more or less checked out of the story and spent the rest of the running time going...look there's Romy Schneider, hey that's Dorothy Gish, oh Burgess Meredith is in this. You get the idea.

    Tom Tryon didn't have much of a starring career but I've liked him in what I've seen him in, particularly Three Violent People, and he's not to blame but this is a yawn.

    1. It is a bit of a yawner, and a big part of that is the fact that there's not a sense of any building tension or climax here. It's just event/resolution, repeat for three hours.

      My issue is that it very happily dumps a good amount of bleach on Catholic history.