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An ambitious American veteran turned priest (Christopher Reeve, Somewhere In Time) journeys to Rome to take his assignment as the Vaticans new treasurer. But upon his arrival he finds the holy coffer nearly bare, and he takes it upon himself to refill it, striking illegal business deals with a U.S. Army sergeant with ties to the Italian Mob. The young priests morality is corrupted even further when he meets and seduces a beautiful young woman (Genevieve Bujold) on her way to becoming a nun. Can his faith save him before his sins condemn him?
From director Frank Perry (Mommie Dearest) comes a tale of ambition, greed, lust and power, boasting stellar performances from supporting cast members including Jason Miller (The Exorcist), Fernando Rey (The French Connection) and Joe Pantoliano.
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Also, always tell the truth and be true to yourself because the lies you tell eventually catches up with you, the truth will hurt the lives of others and will set you free.
Lastly, one can lose their integrity because of self will and not the will of God.
This movie always struck me as a "darker" version of the 1963 Academy-Award winning classic, The Cardinal; and has elements that will appeal to those who enjoyed Mario Puzo's, The Godfather. Though it is NOT based on a true story, the film does bring to light several issues that have the potential of offending those with Roman Catholic sensibilities, but - as I suggest - it doesn't have to. The story begins with the ordination of a young New York priest, Father John Flaherty (Reeve), who decides to act as an army chaplain during WWII. Before leaving for the frontline, the audience learns that Flaherty is the favorite of a powerful New York bishop, and best friends with a man - Varese (Cortese) - married into a mafia family (more on that to follow). In the heat of battle, and after hearing the faithless comments of a dying soldier, Flaherty opens fire on an approaching German contingent, allowing a counter-attack to take place. News of his actions and bravery reach Rome, along with recommendations from his supportive New York bishop, and Father Flaherty is called to the Vatican to exercise his skills in economics (we learn that his non-ecclesiastical degree was in finance) as a junior officer within the Vatican's financial department. Along the way, Father Flaherty earns the trust and friendship of Cardinal-Secretary Santoni (Rey), "the next important man after the Pope."
Shortly after being appointed a mere junior advisor, Flaherty discovers that the war has plunged the Church into dire financial troubles, and he is also fortuitously reconnected in Rome with his childhood friend, Varese (recently decorated by the United States Army for outstanding service). Varese, due to his mob affiliation in New York, has been appointed the underling of a powerful don in Italy. His business is to oversee the running of mafia-based black-market operations in Rome. Knowledge of this gives Flaherty an idea that will rescue the Church from its economic depression. He proposes to Cardinal Santoni that he should be placed in-charge of the Vatican commissary so that he may be able to conduct black-market business deals, and by having sole control, Flaherty states that he will take complete blame should the actions be brought to light. Flaherty encounters a problem with Don Appolini (Miller), however, who does not believe in conducting such business with the Church, whom he says is one of the three things he loves; but, the don quickly changes his mind when Flaherty tacitly tells him that he has Cardinal Santoni's support in the matter. Flaherty's ultimate justification is that by entering the black-market, the Church will be able to divert funds from other criminal activities and use the money for good.
Interestingly enough, on the way back to Rome from his first meeting with Don Appolini, Flaherty and Varese (both in U.S. military attire) happen across a nun and her postulants in training who are caught in a storm. One of the postulants, Clara (Bujold) - contrary to other reviews, she is NOT a nun yet - catches Flaherty's eye, although she does not know that he a priest (a fact he keeps from her). The two set up a secret rendezvous, and develop a clandestine romance. Clara explains that she is entering the Carmelite Order because of her failed relationships with men, but the superiors of her convent do not believe that she is willing to be fully committed to religious life due to this reason for worldly renunciation (turns out they are right). Flaherty continues trying to tell Clara that he is a priest, but fails at each attempt; and Clara explains that she is willing to leave Holy Orders for him. However, should he not want her, she will return to France with her convent and take Holy Vows. This acts as a subplot to the overarching storyline.
Flaherty discovers that the black-market scheme was only a temporary solution to the economic troubles facing the Vatican, and after WWII the Church is once again plunged into economic depression. Deciding that he can once again fix the problem, Flaherty - with the blessing of Cardinal Santoni - is put in charge of restructuring the Vatican banking system, and is also elevated to the level of "monsignor" within the Church. Basically, Flaherty uses the Vatican banks to house and invest the riches of the major mafia families in Italy: thereby putting it to good use while allowing the money to be laundered. It is during this time, and during a special ceremony held by the Pope, that Clara learns Flaherty's true identity. In my opinion, the best scene of the movie follows when Clara confronts Monsignor Flaherty in the beautiful Roman Church near where they met secretly. Clara's seething hatred really comes across in Bugold's performance, and I applaud the scene.
Lastly, Flaherty is appointed a Prince of the Church (Cardinal), and has amassed great wealth as the Vatican's chief banker. However, after his old friend Varese embezzles millions of dollars, his banking activities are called into question, and the College of Cardinals and the Pope deliberate on what to do with him. Before entering a retreat and leaving Vatican life for an unspecified amount of time, Flaherty - with Don Appolini's help - fixes the financial mishaps, thereby preventing the Church from being implicated in criminal activity. Subsequently, Appolini hunts down and kills (executes? You choose which word fits best) Varese. Later, the current Pope dies, and Cardinal Santoni is elected to the Throne of Saint Peter, and he recalls Flaherty from his seclusion to once again be his council. Fin.
Hopefully this more detailed synopsis will allow the individual to better decide if he or she will be interested in this film. It is, in my opinion, one of the best movies in circulation, and I encourage its viewing.
Effective supporting performances by Jason Miller and Genvieve Bujold help to prop up the film. In other reviews, I've constantly read criticisms of Reeve's acting in this picture. While he's no Laurence Olivier, his performance is not as stoic and lifeless as many critics suggest. In fact, his eyes often reveal his deep inner turmoil over his love for God and Holy Mother Church, his friends and fellow priests, and his forbidden love for Clara.
Since I was born in 1983, I am unaware of the publicity and marketing that surrounded this film upon its release. However, marketing is everything. Perhaps 20th Century Fox didn't know how to market "Monsignor" for fear of offending Catholics and other Christians, or perhaps because the director Frank Perry had engaged in high camp the year before with "Mommie Dearest," an alleged biopic of Joan Crawford's domestic life. My one complaint is the film's editing. Were it not for a brief glimpse of Bujold's breasts, followed by a gunshot to the head of a black market profiteer later in the film, this picture could have easily played on television. The only revealing factors in its "big-screen" status are its caliber of actors and its lavish locations in and around Rome and the surrounding countryside. Frequently, the film fades to black and introduces new scenes with no introduction or character development. For example, the viewer is whisked immediately from Fr. Flaherty's ordination to the priesthood (a particularly touching scene) and a wedding party, to his chaplaincy in WWII. We are not given even the slightest background as to his development as a man or a priest, when presumably a couple of years had past.
All in all, I highly recommend "Monsignor," but its audience will be small: namely, fans of now deceased Christopher Reeve, or viewers interested in Catholic Church history, culture, theology, or practices.