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.