St Peters and the Papal Basilicas of Rome

ST PETERS AND THE PAPAL BASILICAS OF ROME. Italy/Vatican, 2016, 95 minutes, Colour. 3D and 2D versions, Rated G.

For those who have never visited them, an opportunity to see close-ups of Rome’s basilicas. For those who have visited, an opportunity to experience delight again, to reminisce and appreciate.

With the advances in the technology of filming, digital mobility, processes of 3D, it is time for many of the world’s great cities, buildings, artwork, to have their close-up moments.

This film, rather Italianate in its style, with some venerable male experts explaining art and history, the fourth and informative female expert, the propensity for some technical and unfamiliar vocabulary (a comment on Mary as the Theotokos – mother of God), a lot of architects and artists named, and more than a touch of the triumphalist in the perspective on the history of the church, on the Sovereign Pontiff, and a presumption that being in the basilicas will, somehow or other, have such an impact that the visitor and the tourist will understand the church. (One might think: if only!)

With these comments and reservations mentioned, it is best to note what is on offer in this visit to Rome, to the Vatican, to the basilicas. Interspersed throughout the film a quite a number of helicopter shots of Rome, audiences being able to pick out some of the landmarks like the Victor Emanuel Monument, and the helicopter flying along the Tiber up to St Peter’s.

This is a 2016 production, noting the Holy Year of Mercy with images of Pope Francis opening the Holy Doors – followed by a historical outline of the Holy Years, beginning in 1300 with Boniface VIII, the development of pilgrimages to the different basilicas, and the decision to have a holy year every 25 years – this Holy Year of Mercy being an exception.

The commentary offers information about Peter, his preaching in Rome, his death, his grave (though not a visit to the site, the Scavi below), the early basilica, and details of the enormous transformation in the 16th century with Michelangelo and the design of the basilica, Bernini and the colonnades and the piazza, and his contribution to the interiors of the basilica. Audiences will appreciate the long and lingering camera movement over Michelangelo’s Pieta. Those were been to St Peter’s will have their favourite places and images and will have pleasure in the recall.

After St Peters, the visit is to the mother of Catholic churches, the church of the Bishop of Rome, St John Lateran. Once again, time is spent in the piazza, a visit to the baptistery, some historical information about the papal palaces no longer there, then to the interiors and the detail of architecture, artwork. There is also a visit to the nearby Santa Scala, the staircase, allegedly from Jerusalem, which pilgrims mount on their knees.

One of the limitations of the commentary, especially for Christians not familiar with gospel and historical detail, let alone for those who are not Christian, is the presentation of all kinds of traditions which could be heard as factual, some of them Catholic folkloric, about revered characters, like Veronica and her veil and Jesus’ face, the name of Longinus, the centurion who speared Jesus, the authenticity of so many relics to be found in Rome…

The helicopter hovering over a St John Lateran travels up the street to the basilica of St Mary Major, the Marian basilica from the fifth century – with the recounting of the folklore about the site of the basilica and a miraculous fall of snow in August as if it too were factual.

The tour of St Mary Major shows a lavish basilica, the beauty of the artwork, the golden roof and its design, the pillars, the images of Mary, and the mosaic in the apse. As with the other basilicas, there is great detail in the history of the building and its art, the grand and beautiful chapels designed and endowed by popes.

The final visit takes us outside the walls of Rome to the Basilica of St Paul.Many audiences will be surprised to learn of the history of the basilica, its link with the death place of Paul and his grave, the building of churches on the site, the abbey present with the basilica, and the extraordinary fire of 1823 which draw destroyed so much of the basilica. The decision was whether to create something entirely new or to rebuild the basilica exactly as it was – and the latter is what happened.

There is a serenity in the interior of the basilica and even more serenity in the beautiful Cloister, colonnades, gardens and flowers.

An interesting feature of St Paul’s is a long succession of pictures of all the popes, many of which were destroyed in the 1823 fire, the length refurbishing of photo pictures, mosaics, with Pope Francis already in place – and the comment made about many who said that when there was no more room for another papal face, the church would come to an end. A ripple of laughter accompanied the next comment which indicated that recently more space has been made for the pictures of the popes!.

In recent years, cinemas have become the venues for performances of filmed plays, ballets and operas and tours of artworks – the advantage of viewing them all on the big screen, in the cinema/theatre atmosphere and, in this case, with the enhanced techniques of 3-D photography.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Sharmill films.    Released June 16th.