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‘The Pope Must Die’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 30, 1991

At first, "The Pope Must Die" is an energetic, often hilarious ribbing of things Vatican. Like the work of the Zucker Brothers, or the old, British "Carry On . . ." films, it barrels along on sight gags and farcical bravado.

But about halfway through, "Pope" dies. It's so busy wandering through a purgatory of plot resolution, it forgets its earlier (funny) sins. Also, it does too much penance for its ribaldry, showing it's not after the church per se, just the bad elements within.

When "Pope Pius" answers his lord's final call, a consortium of unscrupulous Vatican-affiliated businessmen, led by Herbert Lom, get busy. Their plan is to install a figurehead nincom-pope of their own, so they can conduct business as usual, including gun-running and worldwide extortion.

But thanks to a clerical error, the papal job goes to Robbie Coltrane, a tubby priest who looks after the kids at a Catholic orphanage. Horrified plotters Alex Rocco and Paul Bartel find themselves kissing the ring of a pontiff whose idea of a good time is playing hot licks on the electric guitar.

Comedy has no sacred cows and director/cowriter Peter Richardson enjoys the nonsecular license to the fullest. Coltrane in priestly garb wailing on a six-string is not to be missed; nor is the CNN field reporter in St. Peter's square who reduces Pius's death to a banal sound bite. "The Pope's dead," he says in a bored, non-mincing voice. "And we're gonna see him buried live."

Rocco, a chain-smoking, card-playing wheeler-dealer, conducts business on a cross-shaped mobile phone. Dog-collared priests perform aerobics on a Catholic workout videotape, intoning, "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John/Work that fat until it's gone." When Lom discovers the culprit behind the Coltrane mix-up, he calmly pours gasoline over the offending priest and tries to light him up. But his lighter doesn't work. The obliging, would-be victim fishes for his own lighter and hands it over . . .

The heavies decide to assassinate Coltrane immediately and bring in their original candidate. But Coltrane proves difficult to gun down. Also, with the help of priest-ally Richardson (the director), the new pope is beginning to uncover some of their shady goings on. The bad guys find a skeleton in Coltrane's closet, having to do with ex-girlfriend Beverly D'Angelo and (unbekownst to Coltrane) a grown-up love child. All they have to do is call the newspapers.

For all intents and purposes, the movie ends here. The rest has to do with the Coltrane-D'Angelo affair and, of course, saving the soul of the Catholic church. There's even a cheesy, New Testament scene, in which righteous Coltrane storms the Vatican Bank to overturn, as it were, the money lenders' tables. The zingers are peppered more sparsely. "Hey Honey," Rocco rasps to a leggy woman walking past his cafe table, "wanna meet the Pope?"

By the end, the movie's racy title feels like a sophomoric nose-thumbing, designed to spark controversy and deflect attention from its comic unevenness. An overtly provocative print ad for the movie (featuring Coltrane leaning against a cross) was widely rejected in the United States, all three networks refused to run TV spots and some newspaper advertising departments (including The Washington Post's) have reduced the title in the redone ads to "The Pope Must . . ." But the fuss, on both sides, proves to be something of a storm in a chalice.

Copyright The Washington Post

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