Vatican Film Library's role in media race and which popes contributed most

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At the end of the 1950s, as mass media was expanding and a rising number of households were getting televisions, the Vatican also had to join in the fun. In 1959, Pope John XXIII instituted the Vatican's Film Library. 

Delegate of the Vatican Film Library
“All material is donated. So there was no systematic collection. Rather, at different times material was given to the Holy Father and he rightly put it in the archive because it was impossible to keep it all in the pontifical apartment.”

The institution of the Film Library coincided with the Second Vatican Council, also called for by John XXIII. As media was expanding and the global Church was more-readily available, Italian media (RAI) was able to film much of the Council. 

Delegate of the Vatican Film Library
“The Second Vatican Council was an immediate event because it was being filmed. The people were expectantly waiting. They wanted to see what happened, what the council did. The Church was transforming. It was becoming closer to how it is now, in modern times. John XXIII felt the need to bring the Church closer than it was.”

Yet, the archives maintained inside today's Film Library date back much further than the late 1950s. The first movie on hand is from 1896, when Pope Leo XIII was recorded walking around the Vatican gardens to prove he was in good health. 

From there, media expanded and it became somewhat “normal” to video record the pope. One pontiff in particular took to the screen.

Delegate of the Vatican Film Library
“We are in 1942, an age in which people cannot come to Rome, to see the pope. So as film circulated during the war, this is a gift Pius XII gives the world. It was for the faithful to be able to see the pope, to see how he spent his day. For eight months, the cameras were inside the Vatican. They followed the Holy Father, recorded the audiences, his free time and everything in between. It was to give him a more human image, bringing the faithful closer to the pontificate.”

Some of these papal images contributed to the around 8,000 titles and films held by the Vatican. Many others were donations. Each film is in various formats including acetate, magnetic and digital. Beyond Catholic films and documentaries, there are a plethora of movies unrelated to the Church. 

Delegate of the Vatican Film Library
“We have images of the bombings in Japan during the war. There is an image by missionary fathers in the 50s, of the population they have joined. Nothing had ever been filmed by anyone, so they are anthropologically very important images.” The archive also contains high-class cinematography. We have one of Ben Hur's originals. We have the trilogy of 'The Lord of the Rings.' So there are all those cinematographic films that have a spiritual role to transcend humanity.”

These ancient reels and many more are preserved in an air conditioned room between 57.2-64.4°F with 33 percent humidity. For some of the older films, there is also a machine that cleans the reels and preserves their elasticity with a special liquid, making sure they can been shown again at any time. Many of the original old projectors remain, even if they are not used as often with the continued digitization of film.

The restructuring of the building to conserve each of the film reels was around in the late 80s/early 90s. Meanwhile the movie theater was remodeled in 2005. There are 54 new cushioned chairs, replacing the previous wooden ones and new speakers lining the walls, to create more of a theater atmosphere. 

Currently, there is a steady flow of people who both show movies or documentaries and those who attend. Viewers are often made up by members of the Vatican Curia, the Diplomatic Corps, students or even the pope himself. 

Delegate of the Vatican Film Library
“John Paul II was passionate about cinema. So despite his many commitments, he was able to dedicate small amounts of time to film. Now it's a little complicated. I am not saying the pope's workload has increased, but it grants less and less space for the pope to stop two or three hours, which can be a lot.”

Yet, documentaries and films are continuously shown in this unique Vatican theater, which also produce themselves. They are currently working on a special documentary for their 60th anniversary since the opening of the Film Library, that they hope to also show in these room. Maybe the showing will coincide with a surprise visit by a man in white who lives in the building just next door, Pope Francis.

Melissa Butz

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