Top Five: Popes That Should Have a Film

In the golden age of filmmaking, ginormous productions of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur ilk were all the rage, but the 2014 double-whammy of Noah and Exodus (that’s the Moses one) have made for an astonishing resurrection of the ‘staff and sandals epic’. Hollywood is going crazy for scripture these days, so how long before movie companies start mining the biblical depths and shooting spin-offs? That St Francis of Assisi’s story is full of the kind of sauce the intrepid biopic director loves to get stuck into, and how about that Mary of Magdalene – she’s a bit of a sinner, but at the box office she’s sure to be a winner. Other potential money makers include an origins story of the oft overlooked Christmas sheep herders (Bible Sheperds: The Early Shears) and a Marvel/B.C. crossover called Adam&Eve-engers Assemble. People get bored though, and they may yearn for something a little more personal and gritty, a little more ‘kitchen sink’ if you will. A few biographical accounts of the more prominent figures of the papacy would be perfect for such needs and, as you will see, their lives were so crazy that the facts wouldn’t even have to be altared or drama(bap)tised.


1. Pope Leo I (440-461)


In a papal reign more than two decades long Pope Leo I brought joy to Vaticanites, Romans and Christians the land over. His work as a political representative for Catholicism showed a drive and commitment that was hitherto unseen in previous pontificates, and he strove to ensure Roman orthodoxy throughout Europe and Asia. The Tome of Leo, his theological life’s work, laid the foundations for religious debate and doctrinal reformation for centuries to come, and for this he became the first officially canonised pope. He didn’t just pen books and push papers, though – that wouldn’t make for a very exciting film; in his diplomatic hour of glory, he went face to face with the continent-conquering Atilla the Hun and ‘convinced him to turn back’ on his planned invasion of Italy. Some man was Leo, some man.

Title suggestions: ‘Turn Around, Hun’ / ‘Leo the Great’ / ‘Tome of Leo, Toyou of Leo – A Chuckle Brothers Film’

Lead man: Michael Gambon


2. Pope Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048)


The only man to serve three non-sequential terms in the papal office, Benedict IX was not quite as interested in holy bread as he was cheddar. He sold his first papacy for a huge payout in 1044, only to depose the buyer and take the reins the very next year. Benedict sold his title again in 1045 to get married, yet somewhere along the line decided the quiet life wasn’t for him and took another shot at the throne in 1047. His reputation as a spiritual leader was, unlike Leo’s, far from great. The damning Liber Gommorhianus treatise defamed Benedict as ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’, while a fellow bishop accused him of ‘feasting on immortality’. That last statement is impossible to verify, but there’s plenty of literary evidence regarding his raving homosexual and bestial proclivities. What goes on behind golden-gilded doors, eh?

Title suggestions: ‘How Much Is God?’ / ‘Three Terms and a Rent-Boy’

Lead  man: Gerard Depardieu


3. Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503)


An incestuous nepotistic bigot down to the soles of his feet, Alexander VI fathered a son by way of his own daughter, a son whom he then groomed into a political weapon used for spreading the influence of the Borgia family across Italy through corruption and intimidation. Alexander engaged in all manner of debasement, his favourite activity being the orgy + feast combo, which allowed him to satiate his corpulent and lustful desires all in one go. At 72 he was accidentally poisoned and his bloated body, which was decomposing at an unusually rapid rate, had to be totally covered during its city-wide procession. In the wake of his death there was much rejoicing   rioting and violence.

Title suggestions: ‘Rise of the Borgias’ / ‘Crime, Corruption and Copulation’ / ‘The Secrets of Sant’Angelo’

Lead man: Brian Cox


4. Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303)



Boniface VIII constantly sought to undermine political and military powers with his tireless involvement in foreign affairs, interferences which caused no end of grief for his people. His legendary conflicts with Philip IV of France went on for years, and the only achievements of the altercation were import obstructions and financial strain on Italy. Boniface’s conviction in his role as a temporal being of immutable power granted by god’s divination ruffled the feathers of Rome’s more powerful families, and his delusions of supreme authority were famously lampooned in Dante’s Inferno. The film of Boniface would be of extreme importance and would be in prime position for Oscar glory; unlike other accounts of the ‘bad popes’, his story also shows a much softer side. He was something of a philanthropist, given to charity as much as to tyranny, and he took a great interest in architectural restoration and the sacrosanct protection of pilgrims. Boniface died in prison, having bashed his own head against the walls dozens of times before finishing himself off by self-cannibalism.

Title suggestions: ‘By Divine Appointment’ / ‘Boni-Two-Faces’ / ‘9 Years a Conclave (Electee)’

Lead man: Peter Mullan


5. Pope Sergius III (897, 904-911)


A film wouldn’t do Sergius III justice. A good mini-series, maybe even a three season BrBad style treatment co-produced by Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott, would be a more suitable investment of time with which to cover his story. Forcibly deposed from his popehood in 997, the balding scholar effectively went into hiding, keeping himself busy and waiting readily on the edge of the cutthroat political loop. In 904, seven years after his ex-communication, the Vatican was in need of a little tactical cleansing, and Sergius was outright begged to come back and take up the robes once more. The spurned monk leapt at the opportunity with the vengeful rage of a recently-evicted wasp, ordering the strangulation of ex-popes Leo V and Christopher and slaughtering any known sympathisers. After dealing with the threats of his papal alumni, Sergius III married into an influential Roman family to ensure his legacy. Towards the end he lost his mind a tad, and made the decision to exhume the skeletal corpse of Pope Fosomus, whom he subjected to courtroom trial and a tribunal approved beheading (or de-skulling). Sergius’ transformation from a modest priest with a receding hairline and pious ambition into the power-crazed demon he eventually became (and will always be remembered as) makes for an undeniably fascinating life story; powerful acting and evolving characters would be sure to bring in viewers, and there would be plenty of murder and sex for those Game of Thrones proles fans too.

Title suggestions: ‘Serging Temper’ / ‘Cathedral of Cards’ / ‘Waterwalk Empire’ / ‘Breaking Bread’

Lead man: Ralph Fiennes


According to Vatican tradition, the pope is the holiest man currently alive on Earth. Amazing how, out of 266 popes, 196 of them were Italian. Now that’s a highly skewed ratio and no mistake; people outside of Italy should really pray more.


  1. If these are the most holy men, there’s not much hope for the rest of us. Boniface VIII unorthodox suicide is quite fascinating. I’m not sure how one goes about self-cannibalizing oneself, but it would make for one hell of a dramatic ending for a film. Interesting stuff. Well done!

    1. Thanks! I believe he chewed off chunks of his shoulder/arm and succumbed to blood loss.

      1. That is some true dedication to a goal.

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