I enjoy reading interviews with celebrities — at least sometimes. If the interviewee is an actor or actress I admire, I hope the interview will reveal the person as someone to admire not only on the stage or screen but in real life. Even more than interviews with celebrities from the entertainment world, I enjoy reading interviews with authors. I think I am hoping the interview will reveal a new dimension I might have missed in something the author wrote. But an interview with a pope is special and the famous interview with Pope Francis which took place last August is extraordinary and can help us better understand Francis and what his priorities as pope might be.
One section of that interview I found especially interesting. The interviewer, Father Spadaro, asked the pope about his views on art and what artists and writers he prefers. I was curious to see if some of the pope’s favorites might reveal something of Pope Francis’ personality. I was also curious to know if some of Francis’ favorites were also on my list of favorites.
The first writer the pope mentioned was Dostoyevsky. A few years ago I took a course at St. John’s University on Dostoyevsky because I wanted to learn more about this great writer. Next semester I plan to engage in a readings and research course with a group of students in which we will study the novel that many consider Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. My motivation in arranging for the course is mixed: I want the students to study Dostoyevsky, but I also want the opportunity to re-read and discuss the masterpiece with others.
In the interview, Father Spadaro reminds the pope that in 2006 he said the great artists know how to present the painful and tragic realities of life with beauty. I agree completely. Even a sad story can be beautiful. When I think of the filmmakers and novelists to whom I am attracted, I become very aware that often the stories they create are not very happy. For example I think of the works of two of my favorite artists: the films of Ingmar Bergman and the novels of Graham Greene. A friend of mine does not like to see serious films. She says “I go to the movies to be entertained.” Of course, all moviegoers go to movies to be entertained, but there are various ways to be entertained. Some of us find some serious films more entertaining than comedies that are poorly done and may even be dumb.
In responding to Father Spadaro, Pope Francis said the following:
“I have really loved a diverse array of authors. I love very much Dostoyevsky…I have read The Betrothed, by Allessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains…’”
I have never read The Betrothed but when I learned how much the pope liked it, I bought a copy. I am thinking that if the novel is half as good as Francis thinks I will make it one of the novels in the Catholic Novel Adult Education course I moderate. Probably those who attend the course will be especially interested in Manzoni’s work precisely because Pope Francis liked it so much and got so much from it that he read it three times.
Pope Francis seemed to turn to a discussion of films almost spontaneously. He said the following:
“We should also talk about the cinema. La Strada by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with the movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis. I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is ‘Rome, Open City.’ I owe my film culture especially to my parents who used to take us to the movies quite often.”
I think if I had to guess before reading the interview what films were special to the pope, I might have guessed Italian neo-realist films such as La Strada and Open City.
The vision of the human mystery in La Strada is beautiful; the vision of the priesthood in Open City is marvelous and inspiring. I believe every seminarian should see Open City.
Nothing Pope Francis said about art contradicts his image as a deeply compassionate person.