A Priest in Disguise: A Review of The Scarlet and the Black

By Amanda Pizzolatto (Rated G)

The year is 1943, and German troops have entered Italy. The general and the colonel of this unit seeks an audience with the Pope to extract the Catholic Church’s neutrality in an attempt to keep members of the Church from aiding Allied troops, Jews, and refugees fleeing the tyrannical German rule. The Pope does not agree to neutrality, but the German army proceeds as if he has, secretly planning to use the Church as a bargaining chip at a later point. The Pope keeps the Vatican neutral so as to keep those within its walls safe. But that does not stop some of his staff, in particular a Monsignor by the name of Hugh O’Flaherty. He does everything in his power to help those in need, pitting himself against the colonel, Herbert Kappler. The two dance around the Vatican in a deadly game of cat and mouse, in a Tom and Jerry-like battle of wits. O’Flaherty becomes quite adept at disguises, earning him the nickname the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”, referencing the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Orczy, and his great success with disguises and getting people out of the line of the guillotine. The Scarlet and the Black is quite thrilling and even humorous at times, despite the gravity of the situation and of several of the Monsignor’s friends. But just like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Monsignor O’Flaherty pulls it off and saves thousands of people from the Germans. The movie does not have the time to touch on everything that occured, but does try to get the major events squeezed in. This, I think, is why the ending seems so rushed. They go through the end of the war rather quickly. But it does fit as the focus was on Monsignor’s many attempts to stay one step ahead of Kappler, his attempts only ending when the war ended. 

As for the cast, Gregory Peck plays a hot-headed, somewhat intimidating Monsignor O’Flaherty. But that doesn’t stop him from dressing up in various costumes to escape detection from the Germans, including one particularly hilarious scene where he dresses up as a nun. But he keeps the silent, gentle fierceness of Hugh O’Flaherty present in his portrayal of the Irish priest. Opposite him as his archnemesis Herbert Kappler is Christopher Plummer, now playing a German officer who likes being in the Third Reich, a total contrast to the Baron von Trapp for which he is best known. 

As for my thoughts on the movie itself, I think I’ve already mentioned that it is a thrilling ride with a dash of humor and intrigue to keep the interest in the story. I do think the acting was well done, one could never go wrong with greats like Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer, and the side characters were equally as interesting despite these two giants. I do think the only complaint I really have was how rushed the ending felt, or at least the transition to the end. There’s just a few brief scenes to let us know that the Allies were coming in and the Germans had to leave. But once that sequence was established, the movie seemed to get right back on track in terms of pacing. Again, it really is a small thing in retrospect, but it can take you out of the movie if you let it. I understand that they were trying to get in as many details as they possibly could, and that sequence doesn’t seem to need a lengthy explanation like the sequence that comes afterwards. But other than that, it is a fantastic movie. They do bring in the whole Irish vs. English mentality for a little while, but they follow it up by O’Flaherty realizing the error of his ways and working quite closely with English, among other nationalities, to save as many people as possible. This is the story of a man, an Irish priest, who sets out to do what he can to curb the evil of his day. How he succeeds, how he overcomes the obstacles in his way, and the sheer strength he has to continue on despite the danger to himself shows us just what a soldier of Christ he is. He fought with the tools that he had, and shows that with time, brains do prevail over braun. I don’t know what else to say except this – please watch it. It is a really good movie. And if you want to learn more about Father O’Flaherty, there is the book, The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, that you can read (yes, it is the title of a book). I hope you enjoy it and cheer when (spoiler alert!) Father O’Flaherty wins and, like him, forgive those who have wronged you and help them back to the light. Pax vobiscum!

Photo compiled from DVD cover images.

One thought on “A Priest in Disguise: A Review of The Scarlet and the Black

  1. Dear Amanda,

    Thank you for your fine review of THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK; you have helped give this worthy but not preachy film a wider audience, The heroism of the Italian people in resisting Fascism and Nazism (and then Communism) is too-little praised or even known.

    As we experience in our time, secular ideologies never forgive, but the Church always does – Monsignor Flaherty visited Kappler in prison and through his prayers and kindness helped Kappler accept God’s mercy.


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