Saving Grace – The Underappreciated Movie with Tom Conti

Just weeks before Easter, a backwater village in Italy comes to the attention of the Pope, a village whose livelihood is death.

When a humble, thoughtful young priest (Tom Conti) is chosen Pope, his first year within the high walls of the Vatican throws him into a spiritual crisis. Not only is he separated from the people — to whom he has dedicated his life in the name of God — by stone walls, but by a wall of Vatican hierarchy, whose job is to keep His Holiness distanced from the Great Unwashed. Only those who are carefully selected and screened can come in contact with him. He is no longer just a simple priest.

As he goes down the line of people who have been properly selected to be blessed by him, a woman with a sickly child in a wheelchair grabs his arm as he about to go on to the next. Desperately she whispers, “Make a miracle for him, Your Holiness.” He promises to pray for the boy and lays his hand upon his head. It is not enough for the mother. “No. Make a miracle.”

Gently he takes her hand, and softly replies, “I cannot make a miracle. I can only pray for one.”

When a little mute girl from the village of Montepetra (Mount of Peter), Isabella (Marta Zoffoli) arrives alone at the Vatican crying inconsolably, she comes to his notice. As he tries to comfort through sign language between the little girl and a nun, he slowly draws out her reason for coming. Her village of Montepetra has no priest.

More and more as he feels his inadequacy to make a difference in the lives of those who need him most, those very walls, stone and human, not only make him feel cut off from the world, but cut off from God.

When the Pope accidentally gets locked out of those very walls while in his gardening clothes, he takes the opportunity to join the tide of people on the streets, happily making himself one of them.

After getting thrown out of a restaurant for not being able to pay, and spending the night on a bench among the homeless, he makes his way to a church, where he opens his heart in the confessional.

“I have a decision to make,” he tells the priest. “And I don’t know if what I’m thinking of doing is the urging of God, or just my own inclination.” All he hears is silence as he peers through the screen. The priest is asleep. Silent. And so is God.

As he makes his way to the little girl’s village of Montepetra, he finds his way blocked. The village is quarantined for plague. Slipping through the blockade hidden in the back of a covered truck bringing food and supplies, he passes a body laid out in an open coffin and stops to bless. He is hissed away by two women watching over it.

While making a tour of the village, he comes upon the very man (Edward James Olmos) who was laid out in the coffin, now very much alive and well, and understands that this poor village is capitalizing on a crisis it doesn’t really have. It makes it’s living by appearing to be dying.

As he seeks to know why he has been brought to this village — not as the Pope — not even as a lowly priest — but simply a poor man himself, he learns what it means to be human. He learns the depth and pain of sorrow, of trial, of violence, of mortal weakness. He comes — not in judgment — but in compassion — as Jesus did.

It’s possible you’ve never heard of this movie. I stumbled upon it on TV several years ago and never forgot it. Trying to find it again was a job. There was a TV show called “Saving Grace” and another movie entitled “Saving Grace”, that had nothing whatsoever to do with this one. Whoever tagged it as a comedy has a really sick sense of humor. It has humorous moments. But it is definitely not a comedy..

If you find the trailer to this movie I recommend not watching it. The trailer is silly and misrepresents the story. If I’d read the reviews first I might never have watched it in the first place because they make it appear so trite and formulaic. I didn’t find it so. Though the Biblical Easter theme runs throughout the film, it is done beautifully, and with such compassion for the human condition and spirit.

We can see in the film the parallel of Jesus temporarily setting aside his authority in Heaven to come to earth as a mortal man. We can see Mary Magdalene in the beautiful landlady, Lucia (Patricia Mauceri), and the disciples in the village children. We can even see the Apostle Peter after his denouncement of Jesus (“Did God fire you or did you quit?”) in Abalardi the shepherd (Giancarlo Giannini) who has lost his faith, and perhaps John the Beloved in Angelo Evans as Guiliano, the precocious child leader of the children.

And, yes, the abandoned and ruined church; the damaged, useless aqueduct, all speak of a dead faith – awaiting resurrection and the water of life. And we also see that the man who left the Vatican dead in spirit, is not the same man who returned on Easter morning. But all of it speaks to people in the here and now.

Saving Grace (1986 with Tom Conti) is not a movie you watch simply for laughs or fast-paced entertainment. It is nothing like that. It is a story about people wrapped in harsh daily struggles — for life, for faith, for pride, for hope. It is a story where the dialogue must be followed, the expressions noted, and where, once done, it will allow the truly hungry heart to be filled.

P.S. Here is a link to a good review with somewhat of a different spin on this movie – and very well written.

http://cinemasentries.com/review/saving-grace-1986-dvd-review-an-unsentimental-look-at-true-religion/

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7 thoughts on “Saving Grace – The Underappreciated Movie with Tom Conti

  1. I have been trying to find this movie, to watch it again, for about 30 years. My husband and I both enjoyed it, and it has been haunting me ever since I first saw it….I need to see it again! I thought perhaps Turner Classic movies might have it, but not that I’ve ever found. I will see if this movie is available to purchase, either on Kindle or DVD. It’s definitely a keeper!

    • Hi, Gale,
      We bought ours from Amazon for 19.98. I had been looking for it for years. It was so good to finally see it again and share it with other movie buffs. It is indeed a movie that flew below the radar. I blame it in part on that lousy trailer they had out at the time. And Tom Conti was awesome in it, as well as so many of the other actors. It is one of my favorites of all time. Thanks for your response. I hope you get the movie.
      Linda

  2. Absolutely a family movie. Best pitch for the Catholic Church, or more important than that, for a man who cares. I don’t care the religion, but I love that his soul searching found it’s way to help an impoverished people. Again, not Catholic here, but now we have Pope Francis. What a difference he can make, with the church followers, and more importantly – his example. I still am not happy with a lot of the dogma, but I am satisfied that this man wants the best for everyone he meets, and all the others he has not met but who he prays for.

    I really do not like being caught up with religious movies, but this movie stands apart. I don’t know Islam, but I would bet within it’s core is a caring for their own faithful, and a hope for others outside of their faith. Never a call to cause harm. But I am ignorant of the Toran, and Islamic faith. So I do not know. But to ask for violence to support a religion is antithetical to me.

    I finish with this, I can’t believe how simple and beautiful this move was. We should be so lucky, in this world, to have a Pope Francis now, and another one after him, and many more after. Pope ‘Francis’, as a name, is the best name taken for many, many, many, many years.

    I love more than all his admission at the end. It was an instruction on how to live among one another.

    Thank you Linda. I’m trying to find the movie again. I had a tape a long time ago. I found it on Youtube in many parts, and low resolution. I will find a way to buy it soon.

    All my best to others… this movie will make you feel that way.

    • Hi, K.W. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m happy that you agree about the beauty of this wonderful movie. It said so much about the human condition. I also agree with you about Pope Francis. He reminds me of the humble and caring priest in “Saving Grace”. I’ve always been fascinated with the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Patrick, whose Spirit-driven heart for Ireland caused him to take the good news of Christ to an entire people under hard circumstances. I am not Catholic, either. But neither am I a Catholic-phobe Christian. I realize the word Catholic actually means simply ” church” and was the root of all Christian churches until Martin Luther pointed out how far the church had gotten from the teachings of Jesus. I still admire the Catholic church, and love seeing the great reverence shown in their services, something many of our modern churches are sadly lacking. I love praising the Lord, but I also love the majesty of ceremony and awe-inspired reverence. Thank you, again for your thoughtful words.

      • K. W. If you are a reader, I did a post on a book called “Byzantium” by Stephen Lawhead. It looks to be a fictionalized version of the life of St Patrick, but it is one action-packed, cerebral, and exciting story. It’s a big book that I’ve read several times. It is that good. I think you would enjoy it.

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