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The Cardinal (1963)

Updated on May 31, 2012
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Every day Christianity at large takes aim at the Catholic Church. It was the first religion after the appearance of Christ and may well be the last. In the meantime Christian religions have sprung up and continue to do so in great number. If nothing else, and there may well be nothing else, the Church serves to dash the hopes of competitive organizations that strive to replace the dreaded catechism with their own delusions of grandeur. Just because religions of protest are against or dissimilar to the Church does not improve the gyrating mood swings of a genuine freelance seeker. Thus far the Church has not been overtaken and despite its failings in the past, serves to prevent the ascendancy of competitors whose bellyaching/love of power is disconcerting. What difference does it make to the individual if he is garroted or hung in the name of Christ? For it would be naive to think that ambitious Christians who have parted from the Church do not crave holy bloodshed. That said, the character of the priest in The Cardinal does not whitewash Rome. In fact, the priest (Tom Tryon) who becomes a bishop and then a cardinal has a difficult time throughout the movie, unable to reconcile Church positions with life itself so that the human mind, such as it is, might be convinced of its authenticity.

Steve Fermoyle's first test comes when his sister is engaged to a man who is not a Catholic. He is so relentless in his insistence on a conversion, relegating the family status of the would-be groom to that of a confederation of honorary Irish Catholics, that she eventually runs away. In a later scene, she is discovered in a dance hall, the partner of an ex-con who cannot read or write but is 100% Catholic. Then, to top it off, after she goes into labor, hemorrhaging, the holy man refuses to allow doctors to kill the baby in order to save his sister's life. Indeed, this is delicate material, very emotional, and harder still to grapple with within for those who desperately yearn for a simpler answer.

Movies do not usually tread upon such controversial matters. Moviemakers are apt to be more adept at keeping opinions private than risking their expression on the fickle sensitivities of ticket buyers. But The Cardinal is an exception to a rule. It is daring, if not particularly shocking. The length of the film is nearly three hours. There is an intermission and an entr'acte. Titles are by Saul Bass. The music, in addition, is conservative but penetrating. With Otto Preminger at the helm and a plot line that begins and ends with Europe on the brink of World War II, the movie is as much a prestigious event as an artistic artifact. The Cardinal won several nominations, an Oscar, and was released a month after the Kennedy assassination, not that the Catholic factor is unknown to conspiracy theorists.

The extravagant processions and prostrations shown inside churches that outperform anyone's wildest vision of what heaven looks like are not enough to stem the tide toward world war. Why is that? What about the power of prayer when it is really needed? Why, if this is the case, does God emerge from the clouds only to reveal His vast indifference? Everybody in the late 1930s must have known that once nations condoned violence laws, ethics, morals, and basic humanitarian considerations would vanish. Still, it is what it is. How nice things would be if a movie were a mirror held up to reflect the world and enable it to be corrected the way someone might comb, brush, and doctor a recalcitrant hairdo. But that is an unattainable goal. All the same, what The Cardinal does accomplish is nonetheless appreciable.

Cardinal Glennon (John Huston, Best Supporting Actor) is Father Fermoyle's mentor. He sends him to Stoneburg, Massachusetts. There he pawns a church ring to pay for the end of life expenses of Father Halley (Burgess Meredith). It later shows up in a police raid and catches the wide-eyed attention of Glennon. But then the Pope dies and they both travel to Rome. After white smoke and ringing bells, Fermoyle tells Glennon that he does not want to be a priest. He is granted a leave of absence to teach in Vienna. He meets Annemarie (Romy Schneider) and has a chance to make a new start. But something stops him and he returns to his vows. If this sort of inner struggle does not grab the viewer, he or she is liable to feel fully compensated by the scenery of Vienna on top of that of Rome. They are both extremely ornate and impressive to the eye.

From there Fermoyle, representing the Holy See, gets into the civil rights movement, such as it was in Georgia at the time. There, protesters, passing themselves off as good Catholics, carry picket signs in favor of segregation. Fermoyle is abducted and whipped by Klansmen, who also beat a black priest (Ossie Davis). Back in Rome, the priestly insiders argue in favor of a slower approach to the problem. Race prejudice is wrong, they assert, but . . . . No inspiration there. Then it is off to Vienna again to meet with an Austrian priest who presides over a large Catholic population about to merge with that of Germany. Fermoyle objects, but is told that he is too American, inured to "mixture". As he becomes more and more important, he is also seen as more and more impotent. There is no way to prevent the cataclysm about to unfold. Fermoyle beomes a Cardinal at long last and affirms his detestation of totalitarianism and embrace of Americanism, for want of a better term.

In an earlier scene, a bleeding statue of the Virgin turns out to have been the work of a faulty steam pipe. After the commotion dies down, someone observes that it was not from God after all. But Father Fermoyle rebukes him, saying that, yes, it was. The jury is out on this one.

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