National Geographic: Inside the Vatican (2002)

B+ SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Respectful and often fascinating, National Geographic: Inside the Vatican offers a unique behind-the-scenes look at the life, history, and inner workings of Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign state and spiritual capital of the world’s one billion Catholics.

Buy at
2002, National Geographic Channel (TV). Directed by John Bredar. Narrated by Martin Sheen. Documentary.

Though the documentary plays like a “a day in the life” at the Vatican, National Geographic filmmakers actually spent three months in Rome amassing footage and interviews. The result is a well-rounded portrait, or series of portraits, of Vatican life: Vignettes include the ordination of a bishop, the restoration of a priceless tapestry, the swearing-in of a Swiss Guard soldier, reception of world leaders, and a race to digitally preserve disintegrating documents.

Glimpses of John Paul II’s pastoral spirit and compassion can be seen in footage of a visit to a leper colony and in interview footage with the pope’s personal photographer, who explains that he considers it his duty never to take even one bad picture of the Holy Father. The filmmakers bring us into the enclave process by which a new pope is elected, including a look inside the Sistine Chapel’s “Room of Tears” where the newly elected bishop of Rome dons the papal white. They also open the Vatican’s secret archives, records of which include Henry VIII’s rejected divorce petition and handwritten letters from Michelangelo.

Inside the Vatican touches on the origins of the papacy in Jesus’ call of Peter, Peter’s martyrdom in Rome and burial at Vatican Hill, site of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the 20th-century discovery of Peter’s grave and bones. Episodes in papal history, glorious and otherwise, are discussed, from Leo X’s financial mismanagement to John Paul II’s role in the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Documentary, Religious Themes