We have reached a golden age of popes. Forgive me, father, perhaps I should clarify: We’re at a moment when pop culture can’t seem to get enough papal content. Whether it’s popes young, new, or two, the past few years have had more onscreen papal portrayals in quick succession than at any point in the preceding decades; truly, it’s a blessed time in the entertainment industry.
And with The New Pope, HBO’s highly anticipated follow-up to The Young Pope, arriving on Monday, what better time could there be to hit the digital confessional and rank some pop culture popes? In putting together our papal ranking, The Ringer’s resident pope-heads—myself and Megan Schuster—haven’t been strict in our qualifications for what makes a great fictional pontiff. In other words, we’re not judging pop culture popes solely on their holiness; we’ve chosen to celebrate their versatile range—from the devout to the Machiavellian to the one who loves Cherry Coke Zero—and determine who’s made the most memorable onscreen impression. (It’s also worth noting that not every pope on this list is based on a real-life pope, and that we’ve included Mike Francesa, for he is the pope of sports.)
With that out of the way, and after some fierce debates over a couple of pints of holy water, we’re happy to share our results. Please note: We will not be accepting feedback unless it comes from a Vatican email address. —Miles Surrey
16. Pope John Paul II, The Pope’s Toilet
Schuster: This is the first example on this list of a film that Miles and I felt it was necessary to include by virtue of its title alone. The Uruguayan movie (which is called El Baño del Papa in the original Spanish) focuses on a poor South American town that is awaiting a visit from Pope John Paul II. It’s actually a rather bittersweet conceit: The town’s citizens anticipate that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of visitors will swarm in, so they begin constructing food stalls, lodging, and, in the case of the film’s main character, Beto, a snazzy new toilet. Eventually, though, only a few hundred visitors pop up, and the town is thrust into crippling debt. (Apparently, in real life Pope John Paul II’s visit attracted around 50,000 visitors to the town, but the movie took some liberties.)
Alas this movie is not nearly as fun as its title sounds, and it doesn’t feature much of the pope at all, so it’s last on our list. But still, it’s a good reminder that even popes gotta go.
Surrey: Are you saying we need a Vatican edition of Everyone Poops? (Everyone popes?) Cosign.
15. Father Albinizi/Pope David I, The Pope Must Die
Surrey: The film was so controversial upon its release in 1991 that its alternate title was—and this is true—The Pope Must Diet. This is because the movie’s producer—and this is also somehow true—Harvey Weinstein, lost a legal battle and was forced to change the title. (I guess the implication of fat-shaming a fictional pope is a better alternative than an assassination attempt?) As you’d expect, the Catholic Church wasn’t exactly thrilled about the movie’s premise, in which a bungling priest is accidentally elected pope, unwittingly discovers corruption in the Vatican, and then tries to avoid getting killed off by the Mafia. Think Adam Sandler in Mr. Deeds, but he’s the pope.
Schuster: Honestly, iconic reference.
Surrey: Thank you. Censored in major markets and never released on DVD or Blu-Ray, as of this writing the only way to watch The Pope Must Die if you don’t have a VHS copy is through YouTube, where you can view the supposed “director’s cut.” But as great as any excuse to use the hashtag #ReleaseThePapalCut may be, I don’t think there’s any universe where this is an interesting or funny film; try to get through 15 minutes of it if you don’t believe me. The best thing the Catholic Church could’ve done is let this critically derided comedy fade into obscurity on its own terms, which it ultimately did. Like, I’m pretty sure this blog is giving the movie more attention than anything else this century.
14. Pope Julius II, The Agony and the Ecstasy
Surrey: This Extreme Makeover: Pope Edition takes us back to the 1500s, when Michelangelo is entrusted by Pope Julius II to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Spoiler alert: It turned out pretty great! Definitely in the running for a top five ceiling in the world. This is why Michelangelo will always have more clout than his Ninja Turtle namesake. Yes, I’m aware this entire blog is blasphemy; Megan and I will repent for our content sins.)
Anyway, I have to confess that The Agony and the Ecstasy cinematic experience is more agony than ecstasy—especially for anyone who’s had to deal with home renovations that take way longer than you’d expect and end up being super expensive. Taking literal years, Michelangelo basically waited until Julius II was on his deathbed to complete his iconic project. There’s lots of entertaining films about making great works of art; this isn’t one of them. Besides, we’re ranking popes here—and no disrespect to Pope Julius II, but Michelangelo is a much more interesting historical figure.
13. Papa Giovanni Clemente, Vatican Conspiracy
Schuster: First off: LOOK AT THIS MOVIE POSTER.
Surrey: Put this poster in the Louvre. Truly in awe there’s a Vatican equivalent to wake up, sheeple.
Schuster: Have you ever seen anything more metal in your life? This movie, made by Italian director Marcello Aliprandi, has everything—and when I say everything, I mean Amazon would be shook by all it has to offer. Vatican Conspiracy (or Morte in Vaticano in Italian) involves terrorists, an internal plot to kill the pope (an open reference to the mysterious circumstances surrounding Pope John Paul I’s death and the conspiracy theories it launched), and eventually the pope dying at the hands of his closest confidant. This movie didn’t do well, per se, despite its ties to actual history, but it will live on forever as an actual pope-centered action movie. What more could we ask for?
12. Pope, Gone With the Pope
Surrey: Full disclosure: Megan and I haven’t seen Gone With the Pope. But when you’ve got a candidate for greatest movie title in the history of cinema, well, you have to include it. The premise alone is tantalizing: a small-time criminal plots to kidnap the pope, thinking he’d be in for a huge payday if he asked every Catholic to donate a dollar in exchange for his safe return.
Another fun fact: Gone With the Pope, for which production initially began in 1976, wasn’t completed and released until 2010. (The film’s writer-director-star, Duke Mitchell, died in 1981.) That means Gone With the Pope lived through multiple IRL popes before it reached its adoring grindhouse audience. We have no choice but to stan the decades-spanning commitment to the bit.
Schuster: Have to say, I’m incredibly here for Boyhood, but about popes. How many Gone With the Wind references do we think are in this film? I’m setting the over/under at 4.5.
11. Pope Paul III, The Tudors
Schuster: I am unashamed to admit that I have been waiting years—YEARS—of my life for someone to ask me my opinion on the pope from The Tudors. But first, in case you haven’t seen the show, here are the big takeaways:
- Jonathan Rhys Meyers is hot, even when playing a crazed, bloodthirsty, essentially polygamist king.
- It focuses way more on sex than historical accuracy (see: no. 1).
- The pope in it is a total dick.
Surrey: I get the impression you’d be able to write a novel about Jonathan Rhys Meyers and your general feelings about The Tudors, but go off, queen.
Schuster: To be clear, I’m not talking about Pope Paul III, the real-life pope who refused to allow King Henry VIII to divorce Queen Catherine, excommunicated the king (twice!), and presided at the time of England’s split with the Catholic Church. I’m frankly not interested in debating the impact he had on history, Catholicism, or the Sistine Chapel (he oversaw Michelangelo’s Last Judgement painting), and we also don’t really have that kind of time. Instead, when I say the pope is a “total dick,” I’m talking about Peter O’Toole’s version in The Tudors.
That version loves talking about celibacy, taking long sits on his papal throne (from which he rarely moves), and suggesting getting rid of the king’s “whore” (Anne Boleyn). This Pope Paul III clearly takes the Ten Commandments as suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. He is certainly not a Woke Pope, and though O’Toole gives a skillful (if chilling) performance, this pope’s power-mad ways put him in the bottom half of our list.
10. Pope Jean Paul II, The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult
Surrey: This is less a celebration of this particular movie than the work of Gene Greytak, the late real estate broker who made a fun side gig out of his striking resemblance to Pope John Paul II. In total, Greytak made 17 appearances in films and TV shows—all as some version of the pope. And if I were to pick any single one of them as the best, it would be Greytak’s brief-but-hilarious cameo in The Naked Gun franchise’s Untouchables spoof. This belongs in the annals of great moments in Pop(e) Culture. (And, uh, please gloss over the fact that this happened at the height of O.J. Simpson’s movie career.)
9. Johanna, Pope Joan
Schuster: Pope Joan is about a woman who dreams of rising through the ranks in the Catholic Church. Now this may come as a shock to you, but the Catholic Church is notoriously Not That Great at including women in leadership positions (or really elevating them to much of a status at all), so this aspiration was revolutionary—especially considering the film is set in the ninth century. Child Johanna studies scripture, pores over the Bible, and eventually makes her way to the Vatican disguised as a man: Think Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man (yes, I know She’s the Man is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and no, I do not need you to hop into my mentions to tell me about it).
From there, Johanna (again, still disguised as a man) curries favor with the sitting pope, and upon his death, she is named his successor. I will confess that I put Johanna into my personal top 5 of pop culture popes largely because of Girl Power, but also because after she takes over as pope in the film, she does a lot of good deeds for women and children. Things unfortunately fall apart toward the end of this movie when Johanna becomes pregnant (?) and dies in childbirth (??), but let’s just gloss over that part. The main takeaway here is that women are great, signed an extremely unbiased observer.
8. Cardinal Melville, We Have a Pope
Schuster: One of the rare films on this list with a comedic element, We Have a Pope centers on a newly elected pope who doesn’t want the job! It’s a profound thing. Most of the examples of popes in pop culture are either of established pontiffs or people who are angling for the job. Nobody wants power in this movie. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the 2012 film, “Nanni Moretti’s camera studies the faces of these old men. They are white, black, Asian, wrinkled, spotty, apprehensive. We can read their minds. They’re all thinking the same thing: ‘Not me, oh, Lord! Don’t choose me!’”
Eventually the conclave elects a Cardinal Melville (played by Michel Piccoli), and he goes into full-on panic mode. To try to deal with his feelings of inadequacy and depression, Melville goes to therapy. Now, while we fully support a pope who tries to get his mind right and seeks help, Melville … doesn’t really do any of that. The therapist is called in by the other cardinals (who, by the way, are busy playing volleyball during much of the pope-elect’s crisis) and Melville even runs away during one of his therapy sessions. The film is a heartening look at the pressures that come with being chosen as the spokesperson for God on Earth, and Piccoli gives a lovely performance.
7. Pope Alexander VI, The Borgias
Schuster: Yet another example of a Pope Who Doesn’t Play By the Rules. Pope Alexander VI is out here looking to gain full control over the country of Italy, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to achieve it. This is basically The Tudors of religious shows, though it didn’t have as much success. The series was canceled after the third season (despite series creator Neil Jordan’s plans for a four-season arc), but it did give us Jeremy Irons playing a high holy man, for which we should be eternally grateful.
Surrey: Jeremy Irons’ performance in HBO’s Watchmen is Borgias canon.
6. Pope Benedict XVI, The Two Popes
Surrey: This high ranking isn’t our endorsement of the real Benedict XVI, a conversative, dogmatic pontiff who was in charge of the church during the revelation of several scandals, including the church’s abhorrent history of child abuse. (Though at least Benedict, original name Joseph Ratzinger, had enough self-awareness to become the first pope to retire in more than 600 years.) But as played by Anthony Hopkins in The Two Popes—a film centered on a probably fictionalized meeting between Ratzinger and the soon-to-be Pope Francis—Ratzinger isn’t necessarily a good hang, but he’s a much more sympathetic figure than he seems to be in real life.
That’s because of Hopkins, who shows how one of the most powerful positions in the world can also be the most alienating. “Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” his character jokes, but it might as well be a confession that his political career became a double-edged sword. (We’ve all had a couple of lonely dinners in front of the TV; it’s a little more poignant when it’s coming from the friggin’ pope, who should really cut back on the Fantas.) Also, we get to see Ratzinger eat greasy pizza, play the piano, and watch the World Cup with his papal pal Francis; this pope retiree contains multitudes.
Schuster: BRB, about to hang this picture up in my home.
5. Mike Francesca, a.k.a. “The Sports Pope”
Schuster: If you’ve never had the joy of listening to a signature Mike Francesa rant, I feel sorry for you. There is little in this world that is capable of bringing so much collective joy as the ravings of this one particular man, who has dominated New York sports talk radio for decades. If you need some examples, here is a paragraph from The Ringer’s Katie Baker describing a select few:
In 2012, following a stretch in which the New York Mets had lost 14 of their past 16 home games, Francesa “couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. The result was a nearly 10-minute polemic about the sorry state of the franchise. “They told me they played that one in locker rooms for years,” he says. “It takes on a life of its own.” In 2014, irritated by a press conference held by the 1-7 New York Jets’ general manager John Idzik, he went off on every level of the organization. “Play like a Jet?” he mocked Idzik. “What does that mean? Commit a penalty? Or fumble the ball? Or drop the ball?” I was reminded of that monologue when, in April of this year, he reacted to an unimpressive Phil Jackson press conference (a “stream of consciousness that was rather bizarre”) with the same guttural gist of having had it.
The man is a legend, and it’s only fitting that he finishes in our top five. Also, his appearance in Uncut Gems should be nominated for an Oscar.
Surrey: I still can’t believe he wasn’t playing himself in Uncut Gems, but at the same time, he kind of was? Anyway, the point stands: All hail the sports pope.
4. Cardinal Lamberto/Pope John Paul I, The Godfather: Part III
Surrey: Our guy’s best scene technically happens while he’s still a cardinal, but we have to give a shout-out for Lamberto’s blunt assessment of Michael Corleone’s sordid confession: “Your sins are terrible.” (He’s certainly not wrong!)
(Schuster: I just imagined a priest saying that to me in confession and nearly walked into the ocean.)
Sadly, soon after being elected pope and naming himself John Paul I, he is poisoned by Vatican conspirators—and if the name wasn’t enough of a hint, The Godfather is indeed alluding to the mysterious IRL death of John Paul I in 1978. Essentially, this kind of subtlety would be like if Francis Ford Coppola made a movie this year where a guy named Effrey Jepstein was killed in his cell. But again, we respect the bluntness.
3. Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, Angels & Demons
Surrey: If we want to get technical then, yes, Ewan McGregor’s character in the film never actually becomes the pope. But Camerlengo McKenna’s scheme in Angels & Demons is to be elected pope, plus he was running the Vatican after Pope Pius XVI’s death, so that’s enough for us. Besides, where else on this esteemed ranking are you going to find an aspiring pope parachuting out of an exploding helicopter?
This is easily the gnarliest pope-related activity ever put to film. I rest my case.
2. Pope Francis, The Two Popes
Schuster: Miles already hit on a lot of the majesty that is The Two Popes up above, so I won’t repeat too many of the plot details. What is important to touch on, though, is what Jonathan Pryce brings to his interpretation of Pope Francis. People always say reluctant leaders are the best leaders, and it’s obvious early on that Francis is not a man who thirsts for power.
Pryce imbues Francis with empathy—something the real-life version is known for—and in the film he acts as a friend and confidant to Pope Benedict XVI in his most troubled and confusing time. Pryce doesn’t have the memorable or laugh-out-loud quotes that Anthony Hopkins gets in the film, but his quiet facial expressions and portrayal of Francis’s contemplative nature achieve his ends just the same. “It’s not me who needs to be satisfied,” Francis says at one point. “It’s 1.2 billion believers.” That’s a line many people could say and not mean. The power of Pryce is that you can feel how much he believes it.
1. Pope Pius XIII, The Young Pope
Surrey: At first he was the patron saint of dank memes, and that alone would’ve propelled the titular Young Pope to a top finish on our list. In case you need a refresher, the memes were absolutely divine:
Young Pope you're crazy dude they'll never buy it pic.twitter.com/JzwF0PPhwh— Jimmy Donofrio (@JimmyDonofrio) January 15, 2017
[confession]— FRO VO (@fro_vo) January 17, 2017
Parishoner: forgive me father for i have sinned
Young Pope: *removes one earbud* what
But it was soon revealed that this pope, the erstwhile Brooklyn-based archbishop Lenny Belardo, was a bizarre creation in his own right. He loved having Cherry Coke Zeros for breakfast; he had a beguiling relationship with a kangaroo that lived in the Vatican gardens; he could be petulant; he performed genuine miracles; he prayed so hard he nearly shit his pants; he was sexy and he knew it. This pope, so full of contradictions and pathos over being abandoned by his parents and becoming an orphan, was both stranger than the internet’s meme-makers could’ve foreseen and more moving than we gave him credit for. (This is not a bit: Jude Law was robbed of an Emmy!)
The Young Pope (and its young pope) was brilliant because it worked equally well in its moments of absurdity and poignancy—an affecting portrayal of an alienated man taking out his resentment upon an entire religion, in spite of his possibly saintly gifts. By the end of the series, to paraphrase one character, the child pope had become a man—and no sooner did this pope grow up did he fall into an apparent coma. (This should be where we’ll kick things off in The New Pope, as Lenny eventually wakes up with John Malkovich having taken his place.) I can’t wait to see this pope in action again—I’m not just referring to his choice in beachwear—and I doubt the new pope will be able to top the youthful one in our rankings.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.