Film Review: Via Papale (The Lost Road of the Popes)

A Lutheran girl walks into a Catholic Church…

No joke. Last week, this good Lutheran girl found herself in the front row of a crowded Catholic school gymnasium, surrounded on all sides by… well, Catholics.
(“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”)

I was there on invitation to see a screening of a film about Popes and Roman Real Estate. Are you riveted yet? No? You should be. As this film explains, certain Popes and the intricacies of 16th Century Real Estate are responsible for both the survival of the Catholic faith and some of the world’s most glorious buildings.

Via Papale: The Lost Road of the Popes by Make Believe Media is narrated by Brian Dennehy and rests somewhere between Religious Week on the History Channel and your Art & Architecture in Western Europe survey class.

Filmed last year (in the can just last November, in fact), it’s being toured on limited engagement throughout the Puget Sound before a grass-roots, national push in 2010.

(The gymnasium was a blip: All other local engagements are scheduled for actual theatres.)

Here’s an abbreviated synopsis from IMDB:

Beginning with a city in ruin, the Pope under arrest, and Catholicism under siege, The Lost Road of the Popes: Via Papale is the untold story of the “lost” road on which 16th century Rome–and its Church–made the most profound urban and religious comeback in history.

In little more than a lifetime, fueled by their faith, wealth and mission, we follow the lives of six powerful Popes and their family dynasties as they take on the task of first rebuilding, then glorifying, the new Rome.

The Lost Road of the Popes unfolds the miracle of [how] Rome and its Papal rulers not only survived, but were inspired by a Holy Road to create the magnificent monuments, churches, art and architecture that helped to glorify and save the Catholic Church. And why that once powerful road has been forgotten.

Money! Power! Religion! Obsolescence overshadowed by lasting works of magnificent architecture! All the right ingredients for a riveting documentary, no?

I only wish I had read that synopsis before seeing it… maybe it was the orange plastic chair and the echoing crumple-crumple of pop-corn bags under the vaulted gym ceilings that made it hard to concentrate at first, but I feel like I missed a couple particular points of the set-up.

As someone who never took European history, I’d never even heard of the sack of Rome (for shame, public schools) and the “protestant army.” Something about Martin Luther being “a mouthpiece” also caught my good Lutheran attention, but it passed so quickly and I had no prior context for it… so I feel like I missed something there too.

But. I’m happy to tell you, however, that didn’t really matter to the success of what I believe the film is trying to accomplish.

Having seen the film, I now understand what the Via Papale is and how it came to be so influential in the survival of Catholicism. One of the interview subjects explains that “Via Papale” translates not only to a physical road on which the Popes traveled for festival days; it also has a connotation of an intangible route. The way to become and be a Pope.

Via Papale might as well be a verb: To Build. To Create. To Live On.

The film is beautifully shot and makes sparing but practical use of special effects (an animated time line, for instance, handily marks the reign of each influential pope, while a moving map of the Via Papale is used throughout the film to orient viewers to landmarks).

A combination of Dennehy’s capable narration and interviews with passionate, personable religious and historical experts tells the story of how the road demanded the buildings, then the buildings demanded the road, and then the entire route (the tangible one) was lost to modernization and Mussolini’s parade routes. The score is also lovely, though sound effects –marching soldiers, horses in battle, etc– sometimes overpowered the narration.

My favorite part of this film was the chance to see gorgeous art and architecture in a place I may never get a chance to visit in person. The famous domes of Rome, spires, cupolas, columns, master frescoes and murals, saints –and popes of course– on the walls and altars… Beautiful. Apparently it’s also the first movie shot in High Definition in Rome, and let me tell you, it’s much more vibrant than that postcard set you bought at the museum gift shop.

I understand that Catholics and Catholic organizations are the main audience for this film, being a built-in niche audience and all. But anyone who appreciates art, or church history, or western politics, or architecture will find something to learn and  many amazing things to look at.

And if you get the chance to see a screening, ask the presenter about obtaining permits from a dozen police forces, filming with no script, swinging a gigantic crane around Colosseum-like structures, and adventures with the Roman Office of Film. Good stories.

No joke.

Via Paple recently won both a "Remi" and a "Special Jury Selection"
award at the 2010 WorldFest Houston International Film Festival. 
Congratulations, Make Believe Media!

2 thoughts on “Film Review: Via Papale (The Lost Road of the Popes)

  1. Pingback: Blog Coverage | The Lost Road of the Popes

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