Christopher Reeve achieved instant inter­na­tion­al star­dom with his per­for­mance in Superman but that star­dom came with a cost: name­ly, he’d forever have trou­ble step­ping out of the shad­ow of that icon­ic role to do oth­er work.  Despite some strong per­for­mances out­side his Superman role — Somewhere In Time and Deathtrap, for instance — he was often sunk by attempts to break the super­hero mold that back­fired on him.  Monsignor is prob­a­bly the most infa­mous of his non–Superman roles but in fair­ness to Reeve, there’s more to this film’s dys­func­tion than hav­ing a fish-out-of-water super­hero in the lead role.

Monsignor could be seen as the dying gasp of the trashy Hollywood melo­dra­mas that were ulti­mate­ly killed off by the suc­cess of prime-time soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty.  It presents Reeve to the audi­ence as Father John Flaherty, a dash­ing and ambi­tious young priest who goes off to World War II to serve as a chap­lain.  However, he’s over­tak­en with rage after risk­ing his life to give a dying sol­dier the last rites and picks up a machine gun to shoot down some Nazis.  This gets him noticed by the Vatican and he’s prompt­ly shipped off to Rome serve under Cardinal Santoni (Fernando Rey).

And this is where a long, slow fall from grace begins for John, aid­ed and abet­ted by world­ly vices and illic­it mon­ey.  When he dis­cov­ers the Vatican’s cof­fers are almost emp­ty, he teams with an old pal from the neigh­bor­hood, Ludo (Joe Cortese) and gets into black mar­ket sales.  Soon he is seek­ing out more mon­ey by team­ing with exiled American mob­ster  Don Vito Appolini (Jason Miller) to move the Vatican into the world of high finance.  Along the way, John also  finds the time to seduce Clara (Genevieve Bujold), a young wom­an on her way to becom­ing a nun.  Scandals and exis­ten­tial angst fol­low as John wakes up from his sin-coma and works his way back towards redemp­tion.

Monsignor was cre­at­ed by the team of pro­duc­er Frank Yablans and direc­tor Frank Perry, the same team who gave us the ever­green camp-fest Mommie Dearest, but don’t expect the same kind of over-the-top thrills here.  Despite a few brief flash­es of nudi­ty, it’s a rather tame affair that focus­es more on opu­lent sur­round­ings and its ensem­ble cast that any kind of well-mon­eyed cheap thrills.  It often feels like a slight­ly pompous t.v. movie, albeit one with a gen­er­ous bud­get that allowed some gor­geous loca­tion shoot­ing in Italy.  Perry’s direc­tion is bland­ly com­pe­tent: he goes for the occa­sion­al flour­ish, like a Latin mass-scored scene where John’s true iden­ti­ty is unmasked to Clara dur­ing a reli­gious cer­e­mony, but his work here main­ly feels tepid and indif­fer­ent.

It doesn’t help that the script by vet­er­an screen­writ­ers Abraham Polonsky and Wendell Mayes is unin­spired, built on clink­er-heavy dia­logue and con­trived sit­u­a­tions.  Word has it that the film doesn’t real­ly reflect much of the source nov­el by Jack Alain Leger and the nar­ra­tive was essen­tial­ly devised by Yablans from a syn­op­sis of the sto­ry.  The end result is essen­tial­ly a sim­plis­tic rise-and-fall nar­ra­tive and often feels like it’s miss­ing big chunks of sto­ry­line, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the flash-for­ward third act that catch­es up with John after sev­er­al years of wheel­ing and deal­ing.  The one real inter­est ele­ment of the script is that it asks us to side with an essen­tial­ly amoral, self-deceiv­ing char­ac­ter — but that is nev­er real­ly explored.

It has often been said that Reeve is mis­cast as the film’s ambi­tious sin­ner hero and that is true.  Though Reeve is com­mit­ted to his per­for­mance role, he’s just too clean-cut and sub­dued in act­ing style to con­vince in the role and comes off as awk­ward in sce­nes that require big emo­tions.  That said, any actor would face an uphill bat­tle with the char­ac­ter of John Flaherty: he’s basi­cal­ly a cipher in his own sto­ry, an unsym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter who is defined by what the sto­ry needs him to do at a given moment to ful­fill its rise-fall-redemp­tion arc.  It’s telling that a lot of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion comes from oth­er char­ac­ters describ­ing his qual­i­ties to oth­ers — or even to John him­self — rather than through his own actions.

Thus, the main rea­son for trainspot­ters of big-bud­get schlock to watch Monsignor is its impres­sive sup­port­ing cast.  Rey offers a grace­ful turn as John’s men­tor, mak­ing even the creaki­est reli­gious phi­los­o­phy sound con­vinc­ing, and Miller brings some vis­cer­al emo­tion to a clichéd gang­ster role.  Fans of Italian cult fare will be amused by the pair­ing of Adolfo Celi and Tomas Milian as a car­di­nal-priest team out to take the hero down.  Milian even gets a great court­room-style scene where he makes his case again­st John’s cor­rup­tion in a mem­o­rably furi­ous man­ner.  That said, top hon­ors must go to Bujold, who ris­es above some ter­ri­bly writ­ten sce­nes to give a seri­ous, qui­et­ly intense per­for­mance as the object of John’s for­bid­den affec­tions.  She’s way bet­ter than the mate­ri­al deserves, par­tic­u­lar­ly in her final scene with Reeve.

All in all, Monsig­nor is a mis­fire that rep­re­sents the dying days of the trashy Hollywood soap opera.  It isn’t as enter­tain­ing or as campy as one might hope — but it’s con­cep­tu­al­ly bizarre and has an impres­sive enough sup­port­ing cast to make it worth a look to fans of major stu­dio schlock.