We have compiled the most balanced top 10 of the best Pope movies. It’s about a new pope, two popes, the popess and Francis and much more.
The Pope in movies
Pope movies come in all degrees and types. You got the hagiographic type of pope movies where he is almost worshipped. And then you got Pope movies that have to do with sex, drugs and rock and roll, so to speak. And mafia, of course. The Vatican, well, also equals money and secrets. At least in the general picture. True or not.
I’m sure the films below have been seen by Pope and prelates. In the Vatican, they love films, pope movies and not. As early as 1959 the Vatican established a filmoteca, which contains over 8,000 films. On top of that, the Vatican compiled a top 45 list of the best films of the 20th century, from ‘La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ’ (Zecca & Nonguet, 1903) to ‘Schindler’s List’ (Spielberg, 1993). There were no pope movies among them.
Related content: Also read my article on the secrets of the Vatican
Top 10 Pope Movies
Below we have listed some of the best movies
The Two Popes
Watch them watching TV
- Director: Fernando Meirelles
- Leading Actors: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins
- Year: 2019
- Why to watch: Two top actors give body to the current popes
- Platform: Netflix
There is actually not much Italian about this pope movie (you have now joined a site called Italy Start, remember). The production and actors are not Italians, even the two popes are not (one is Argentinian, the other German). Fortunately, the locations (Rome, Caprarola, Caserta) are.
This film is my number one because it is one of the few middle-of-the-road films in the genre of pope film, and by that I mean that the film is neither too pope-worshipping nor too pope-critical. Moreover, the acting is at a very high level. Of course, you can concede that to the two lead actors.
By the way, I don’t know why, but Pryce is credited as the lead actor and Hopkins has as a supporting role. The dialogues are strong, some finds fun, like both popes watching the German-language crime series ‘Kommissar Rex’ (a well-known TV series from the 90s).
The script itself, although nominated for the Oscars, is not that special, because it more or less follows the real lives of both popes. The story starts under the reign of Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and ends with the papacy of Francis (Pryce).
For those who don’t remember: Benedict resigned in 2013 (a unique action in the last 600 years of papal history) and Francis was elected the following month. So there are currently two popes in the Vatican: one is the emeritus and has no power whatsoever, the other is the current possessor of the ‘chair of Peter’.
This pope movie ends that both men dressed in papal white appear to be watching the World Cup on TV on the same couch. In reality, both popes are not so attached to each other. The men have a different style and a different worldview. The past nine years have shown that. Benedict has made a few appearances, which shows he is not so happy with Pryce… Pope Francis.
Experience The Two Popes for yourself:
Habemus Papam / We have a Pope
We have a psychoanalyst in the Vatican
- English title: We have a Pope
- Director: Nanni Moretti
- Leading Actor: Michel Piccoli
- Year: 2011
- Why to watch: Sometimes funny movie about when the pope doesn’t want to be pope
‘Habemus Papam’ is the phrase the cardinal protodeacon speaks at the end of a papal election. ‘We have a pope’ is the literal translation. Well, in this nice film by the well-known director Moretti (winner of the three most important European film festivals: Venice, Cannes and Berlin) the theme is that the new pope does nót want to be the new pope.
Normally after ‘habemus papam’ the new pope appears on the balcony at St. Peter’s Square, but not in this movie. The pope even flees the Vatican and walks through Rome with his soul under his arm. We follow the pope, performed by the brilliant actor Michel Piccoli (1925-2020), on the days immediately following the conclave.
A psychoanalyst (Moretti) is brought in to help the pope deal with his brooding behavior. Amusing scenes include the volleyball tournament between cardinals in the Vatican and a Swiss guard who must make shadows in front of the pope’s window so that the waiting crowd thinks the pope is in his office in the palace at St. Peter’s Square.
Experience Habemus Papam / We have a Pope for yourself:
The Young Pope
So not real
- Director: Paolo Sorrentino
- Leading Actor: Jude Law
- Year: 2016
- Why to watch: Jude Law as a chain-smoking pope and triple crown on his head
- Platform: HBO
The young pope in this series (10 episodes) is not only young, but also handsome (Jude Law) and smokes like a heretic. He is, nevertheless, reactionary. The young pope thus has little in common with the 85-year-old Francis, the real pope, who has a progressive agenda. That’s what makes the series so much fun. It’s so not real. Also, Jude’s clothing and the tiara, the triple papal crown (abolished in 1963), are not like in real life, but this tacking on, does make the series attractive.
Sorrentino, the director of La Grande Bellezza, can give like no other the ‘campy’ style that such a character as Law/ Young Pope and his entourage need. Some scenes were shot in the famous gardens of Villa Lante in Bagnaia (100 kilometers north of Rome). The same gardens also appear in Nanni Moretti’s film ‘We have a Pope’.
Read about Villa Lante and other must-sees near Rome
The follow-up of these series is titled ‘The New Pope’ (2019). In it, Jude even emerges from the water in a short-cut swimsuit in pontifical (white) color. So not real.
Experience The Young Pope for yourself:
A papal orgy family?
- Director(s): various (series is created and written by Tom Fontana)
- Leading Actor: John Doman
- Years: 2011-2014 (3 seasons)
- Why to watch: Drama about a criminal pope (not for tender souls)
- Platform: Sky, Canal+, Chili
Rodrigo Borgia or Pope Alexander VI speaks very much to the imagination five centuries after his death. Murder, corruption and adultery are blamed on him, and there is historical justification for this.
A lot of directors have worked on this pope and his family. In the 1980s, for example, the BBC produced a series under the name -how could it be otherwise- ‘The Borgias‘. In 2006 the feature film ‘Los Borgias‘ appeared, a Spanish production. The last decade has brought two major series on this subject: ‘The Borgias‘, an American production and ‘Borgia‘ of European origin. Of these two successful series, I prefer ‘Borgia’.
Not that ‘The Borgias’ is bad. It was a successful (3 seasons) series, but in my opinion just too slick. Jeremy Irons is very good as the manipulating Borgia pope, but it stings me that his appearance does not match the historical character at all. Alexander VI, to put it bluntly, was a fatty. Then John Doman in the French-German-Czech-Italian co-production fits his role better. Also, the European series is a bit rawer and has more dirt, violence and nudity in it, and is so more ‘truthful’.
All Borgia films do assume a little too easily that the Borgia family was one of history’s most powerful and infamous crime dynasties. Murder, intrigue, lust and money would have swirled around this Renaissance-era clan. Rodrigo Borgia and his son Cesare personified all of man’s evils. The subtitle of the American series is note-perfect: “The original crime family”. The reality, as always, is a little different.
Experience Borgia for yourself:
Angels & Demons
Most successful 'pope' film
- Director: Ron Howard
- Leading Actor: Tom Hanks
- Year: 2009
- Why to watch: Action movie starring Rome and the Vatican
- Platform: Prime, Apple TV
In Angels & Demons, the lead role involves not so much the pope as the camerlengo, the powerful curial official during the conclave. We only find out about the role of Ewan McGregor, the camerlengo, after three (film) or four (book) murders of a cardinal.
Interested in all the locations in detail from Angels & Demons? Then be sure to read our article about it.
The nice thing about this movie is that it is one of the movies where pretty much the best locations of Rome and the Vatican are portrayed. The Vatican is recreated and scenes are shot in Caserta, Italy’s Versailles, among other places. The film (500 million dollar box-office in 2009 alone) is more truthful than the book, which is remarkable, because films based on a book are often more superficial.
Experience Angels & Demons for yourself:
The Godfather Part III
Light my candle fire
- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Leading Actors: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia
- Year: 1990
- Why to watch: Possibly first mafia film where link to Vatican is made
- Platform: Amazon Prime, Apple TV
The creators of the third (and final) part of The Godfather, which stars the fraudulent role of the Vatican, were fortunate to have the film material just dropped into their laps. In 1978, Pope John Paul I died a sudden death, which some believe was attributable to poisoning. An otherwise unlikely theory.
In 1982, a major Italian bank went bust, involving the Vatican (and the mafia). In the film’s Archbishop/ banker Gilday, we readily recognize Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the director of the Vatican bank in the eighties. “Don Corleone. I need your help. And not just to light a little candle”, Gilday says to don Corleone, the head of this (fictional) mafia family. This does set the tone of the movie.
Again, this film is not so much about the Pope as it is about the men behind the Pope. Still, this classic movie cannot be left out of our top 10 list of Pope movies.
Experience The Godfather Part III for yourself:
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
Traveler in a Mr. Bean car
- Director: Wim Wenders
- Leading Actor: –
- Year: 2018
- Why to watch: Interesting biographical account of the current pope
- Platform: Netflix, Apple TV
Pope Francis can’t do wrong with filmmakers. This can be explained by the fresh wind that he has been blowing through the Roman Catholic Church since 2013, when Francis became pope. Even the famous filmmaker Wim Wenders ‘devoted’ a (documentary) film to the current pope. They were also happy about that in Rome, and the German film maker got all the cooperation of the Vatican.
The film is a mix of interview and stock footage, including when the pope arrives in a simple Fiat 500 during his visit to the United States. The TV commentator calls it a “Mr. Bean car”. This is not a film for those reluctant to engage with the pope. It is a bit on the good sun side.
Still, this is our choice in the selection of Francis films, this docufilm offers nevertheless a good look at the Pope’s ideas. And not to forget: we are dealing with Wim Wenders.
Another (docu)film about Francis was released in 2020 and is made by Evgeny Afineevsky, a Russian-Israeli filmmaker. Also in this film are edited parts of interviews with the Pope. The movie (title: ‘Francesco‘) let to some controversy, because the pope spoke out positively about registered partnership for gay couples in it.
Some feature films also exist about the life of Francis. In 2015 ‘Francisco: el padre Jorge‘ (Francis: Pray for me) was released in Argentina, a uncritical film. A similar biographical movie, a little less polite, also came out in the same year. The title is ‘Chiamatemi Francesco’ (Call Me Francis) by the Italian director Daniele Luchetti.
Experience Pope Francis: A Man of His Word for yourself:
- Original title: Die Päpstin (German)
- Director: Sönke Wortmann
- Leading Actor: Johanna Wokalek
- Year: 2009
- Why to watch: To learn about the famous, but fictional story of the female Pope
- Platform: –
Even though historically Pope Joan did not exist, she continues to fascinate filmmakers. And she will also remain attractive in the modern era where women are given a new place in history.
The story is as follows: Johanna from 9th century England disguises herself as a man and goes to Rome. She is warmly welcomed there and the cardinals admire her so much for her learning that she is unanimously elected pope. No one knows she is a woman until, after a pontificate of more than two years, she gives birth to a child during a procession. She dies on the spot.
The film after an American book, by a fairly unknown German director is recommended because this well-known legend is told in a spirit of women’s power.
More films have also been made about the Popess. In 1972, Liv Ullmann played the female Pope in the British film ‘Pope Joan’. Franco Nero plays a king. The film is also known under the title ‘She…Who would be Pope‘.
Experience Pope Joan for yourself:
Under the sign of the swastika cross
- Director: Costa-Gavras
- Leading Actors: Ulrich Tukur and Mathieu Kassovitz
- Year: 2002
- Why to watch: Wrongdoings of the church during the Holocaust
- Platform: Raro Video, Google Play, Apple TV
If we want a truly critical work, then we have to watch this film by Costa-Gavras, a well-known Greek filmmaker. The film poster alone makes clear that this movie is not a pope-friendly film. The poster, designed by Oliviero Toscani, depicts a swastika and a cross merged as one.
The film is about the role of the Pope Pius XII during World War II. The role of this pope was impeccable until the play ‘The Deputy’ (‘Der Stellvertreter’ in German) appeared in 1963. In it, the (then) deceased pope was pilloried. He would have done almost nothing to stop the persecution of the Jews and actually would even have collaborated with the Germans. ‘Amen’ is largely based on this play.
Experience Amen for yourself:
The shoes of the fisherman
Anthony Quinn is… Karol Wojtyla
- Director: Michael Anderson
- Leading Actors: Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Quinn
- Year: 1968
- Why to watch: Old hands in the film business with the Vatican as a backdrop
- Platform: Prime, Apple TV
The nicest thing about this film, based on a 1963 book, is that the scriptwriters had foresight. The story involves Russian priest Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) being released by the Russian leader (played by Laurence Olivier) at the height of the Cold War. When the Pope dies (John Gielgud), Lakota is chosen as the successor.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyła from comunistic Poland is elected as Pope, and the similarities to the film are significant. Another plus of this film are the leading actors, who represent an entire (older) generation.
Experience The shoes of the fisherman for yourself:
Your favorite Pope movies?
I hope you enjoyed this list of Pope movies and even have given you inspiration for your next movie nights. Please let me know what you thought of the films, or which ones you might be missing from this list in the comments below!