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.