The title The Man from Rome evokes the thriller genre, be that spy, conspiracy or crime. Think of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” or indeed, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” True to title, The Man From Rome utilizes tropes of conspiracy, espionage, mystery and action. It comes complete with a stern-faced but honorable hero, clearly dangerous with a shadowy past, plagued by guilt but absolutely the man you want on your side. There are multiple computers with urgent-looking tech experts tapping rapidly away, talk of servers, hacking, protected files and secret accounts. Grim-faced men sit in opulent rooms and discuss criminal syndicates and unofficial agencies. There is corruption and intrigue, murder and revelations, along with action sequences that highlight the tension between physical and digital combat. But the film also features revelations and the possibility of redemption. Such themes are not unusual, but redemption and revelation take on additional weight when combined with faith, for this is a conspiracy thriller within a religious context, perhaps best described as a Catholic thriller.
Our stern, but honorable protagonist, who in similar films might be played by Daniel Craig, Matt Damon or Liam Neeson, is Father Quart, portrayed by Richard Armitage (“Ocean’s 8”). We are introduced to Quart in suitable tough guy pose — performing press-ups while stripped to the waist, which is not the only time that this male body is presented as a spectacle. Quart is a member of Vatican External Affairs — i.e., Vatican intelligence — sent to investigate a church in Seville. The church is up for demolition so that urban regeneration / gentrification can proceed, but the owner of the land as well as the resident priest are resisting the developers. Mysterious deaths in the church cause the Vatican to take an interest, an interest further fueled by a mysterious hacker who breaks through the Vatican’s firewalls to send a personal plea to the Pope. Eager to avoid a scandal, the head of External Affairs, Monseñor Paolo Spada (Paul Guilfoyle, “Spotlight”) dispatches Quart, who is struggling with guilt over his last assignment. Quart insists to all that he encounters that he is in Seville to “write a report,” but the various figures he meets, including landowner Macarena Bruner (Amaia Salamanca, “Despite Everything”), Padre Príamo Ferro (Paul Freeman, “A Fantastic Fear of Everything”), Pencho Gavira (Rodolfo Sancho, “Don’t Listen”), Gris Masala (Alicia Borrachero, “Terminator: Dark Fate”) and Comisionado Navajo (Victor Mallarino, “Bluff”) are, not unreasonably, convinced that there is more going on. Indeed, Quart quickly learns of heated marital disputes, local legends, blackmail and cover-ups.
The Catholic Church lends itself to this genre. Like intelligence agencies, it is presented as a large-scale institution with bureaucracy, multiple departments, an almost regal presence at the top, senior bigwigs, field agents plus high technology, and tensions with local authorities. Some might find it unrealistic that a priest is equipped with a handgun and remote tech support, running around like James Bond or Jack Bauer. Others might find it all too believable that the Church wields this sort of power. Ultimately, whether any of this is realistic or not is irrelevant, because the real question is does it work as a narrative? For the most part, the answer is yes, as screenwriter-director Sergio Dow delivers an intriguing and absorbing thriller with attractive Euro-locations and many ornate surroundings in which its colorful cavalcade of characters clash. Dow’s direction is unremarkable but functional, eschewing shaky cam stylistics or jarring editing like Paul Greengrass, or attention-grabbing long takes à la Sam Hargraves’ “Extraction.” The action sequences are punchy but contained, allowing us to see the action choreography and keeping gunshots to a minimum.
Unusually though, Dow manages to make hacking dramatic. An early scene in the Vatican’s cyber security center features inter-cutting between the priestly tech team (because that’s a sentence) and a mysterious hooded figure hacking into their systems with all the import of breaching the NSA. Fingers tapping on keyboards and various screens of rapidly appearing code are not inherently exciting, but with judicious cutting, Dow and editors Pablo Blanco and Miguel Angel Prieto evoke genuine tension more akin to Michael Mann’s electrifying “Blackhat” than the tedious “Live Free or Die Hard.”
Pleasingly, despite the slightly camp hacker figure, The Man from Rome features relatively little in the way of moustache-twirling villainy. A loose assembly of enemies demonstrates the globalized nature of finance, embezzlement, development and corruption. That said, Gavira makes for a convincing bastard, both in terms of his financial venality and domestic attitude.
In opposition to these shady characters, Armitage is an engaging lead, channeling an energy reminiscent of Clive Owen in “The International.” As Monseñor Spada, Guilfoyle is a tricky presence, appearing by turns both trustworthy and also less so. Carlos Cuevas as Padre Cooey provides a Q-like figure to Quart’s 00-Dog Collar, while Salamanca makes Macarena a suitable damsel who manages her distress quite well, thank you very much. Fionniula Flanagan (“Havenhurst”) makes a surprising appearance as a Spanish Duchess, who is perhaps used rather heavy-handedly. As this list may indicate, the film has a lot of characters, and it may be hard to keep up with them, but it does keep the viewer guessing, which is part of the fun with a film like this. And by large, this is a fun film, that effectively infuses the genre tropes with its religious conceit. Some elements are less effective: There is a romance angle that goes nowhere, so begs the question of what was the point? More grating is the constant presence of English dialogue. One character is Irish and two are American, the rest are Spanish, Italian or from Eastern Europe. Yet in Vatican City and Seville, everyone speaks English, with a variety of accents. With a largely Spanish cast and a clear presence of internationalism, the English is quite jarring, to the extent that when Quart orders a coffee in Spanish, it comes as something of a relief. For an international co-production between Spain, Italy and Colombia, it is strange and annoying that subtitles still seem to be a big problem.
Aside from these two aspects, and a rather clunky title, The Man from Rome is an effectively intriguing conspiracy mystery that blends espionage, cyber thrills and religion into a rich concoction. It may not be worth devout worship, but no one involved in the film need say a Hail Mary.