A solemnly perverse, affirmative reorchestration of the Faustian, "Monsignor" calls upon Christopher Reeve, radiantly photogenic and all wrong for the part, to live a questionable double life as Father John Flaherty, an ambitious young American priest who launches a brilliant Vatican career toward the close of World War II.
Given the inherent trashiness of the material he's attracted to, producer Frank Yablans should seek out directors with far more mischief in their souls and flamboyance in their touch than Frank Perry.
An incorrigible plodder, Perry imposes such a stilted, portentous style of presentation on "Monsignor" that you feel as if grass must be growing up around your feet and vines curling around your shoulders as the underdramatized chronicle of Father Flaherty's unholy success story slowly, slowly unfolds.
Father Flaherty encounters relatively negligible opposition to a morally compromised career. A willing devil's advocate in the service of the Church, Flaherty uses his knowledge of high finance and his personal underworld connections to protect the Church from bankruptcy at the end of the war.
The shocking thing about "Monsignor," especially if you grew up with the movies of a generation ago, is that the film makes no effort to appease the pious, who may, indeed, feel deeply offended. It expresses a remarkably untroubled cynical view of the material world and no serious interest in a spiritual one, accepting the fact that men may be required to act illegally or ignobly to protect their self-interests or the interests of the institutions they serve.
The filmmakers regard the hypocrisy of Flaherty's role in the Church with the same vaguely regretful but resigned equanimity demonstrated by his papal patrons. Their attitude isn't even ambivalent. After all, somebody's gotta be willing to do the dirty work.
As men of the world, the filmmakers are perfectly justified in taking a benign view of their protagonist's behavior. The catch is that it's a mistake in dramatic terms to treat Flaherty's compromises, necessary or gratuitous, with such serene masculine solicitude.
The only obstacle to Flaherty's progress is an Italian rival, Francisco, played with a welcome, fanatic intensity and enmity by Tomas Milian, who is associated with a hopelessly parochial, reactionary faction in the curia. When the financial empire created by Flaherty is briefly threatened, the dramatic events seem to be taking place off-screen, as a former confederate (Joe Cortese in a role blatantly stolen from John Cazale's weakling brother, Fredo, in "The Godfather" saga) busies himself betraying the hero and we listen to updates that might as well be coming by messenger or radio.
The only source of shame that interrupts Father Flaherty's progress turns out to be a source of hilarity for the audience. An army chaplain when called to service in the Vatican, Flaherty continues using his uniform, stripped of the chaplain's insignia, to pursue certain business affairs under the alias Lt. Finnegan. He also begins a love affair with a French Carmelite postulant named Clara, who appears to be alarmingly aging and haggard as embodied by Genevieve Bujold, in what could be a career-ending role.
Flaherty agonizes, in his less than agitated way (Reeve's huge, handsome face betrays a crease here and there at such moments), over revealing his identity to Clara, who knows he's concealing something and fondly promises to forgive him in advance. However, she causes his most embarrassing moment when chance brings them to the same papal ceremony, and uncool Clara starts a traffic jam in the center aisle of the cathedral by staring in prolonged amazement at Flaherty in his priestly uniform.
One of the funniest recognition scenes in theatrical history, it's immeasurably enhanced by the solemnity of the occasion, a wittily timed choral selection orchestrated in the background by John Williams and the exquisite back-and-forth of Bujold's accusing gawk and Reeve's averted glance.