‘Extra’ Cardinals Invade the Vatican (Blessings Not Included)

ROME — The cardinals seemed to be everywhere, checking their cellphones as they sat on parked mopeds, petting dogs and wearing plastic bibs over their pectoral crosses as they waited in line for lunch on a small street outside the Vatican.

Florence Cooper, a tourist from Vancouver, stumbled upon a group of them on Monday dressed in their distinctive black cassocks and scarlet buttons, fascias and zucchettos.

“Picture?” Ms. Cooper, 69, asked. They draped their arms over her shoulders as her husband snapped a photo.

Astonished at her good luck, she thanked the Italians for their kindness and lifted the medallion of St. Christopher hanging from her necklace for a blessing. That’s when Fausto Maria Rivalta, 64, interrupted.

“We’re extras in a movie,” he explained. The smile vanished from Ms. Cooper’s face. “I thought they were cardinals,” she said.

A lot of people did.

This week, a confluence of ersatz eminences trafficked the streets around the Vatican for the filming of a Netflix drama about the relationship between Pope Francis, played by his Welsh doppelgänger Jonathan Pryce, and Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, during the papal transition of 2013.

Rome is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, and priests and nuns are as much a part of the fabric here as ancient ruins, Baroque churches and lately, heaping piles of garbage and potholes. (And sometimes, garbage in potholes.) But cardinals are rare birds in the city streets, tending to lay low in their apartments, sedans and curial offices.

Even some Vatican officials were a bit baffled.

Paul Tighe, an authentic bishop and the second-highest-ranking official at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, walked down the street with a novel under his arm, doing a double take when he saw all the red hats.

“For a moment,” he confessed, “I tried to see if I could recognize any of them.”

Outside a restaurant, Renato Friscotti, 72, stood among a small college of faux cardinals and explained how he got the job.

“They picked us because we look the part,” Mr. Friscotti said. “We’ve got the long aquiline noses. And we are so old.”

Mr. Friscotti is himself a veteran of ecclesiastical extra work. In the HBO series “The Young Pope,” he appeared as Pope Celestine V, who, like Benedict, made what Dante called the “great refusal” and retired from office in 1294.

(Unlike Benedict, who retired in 2013 and lives comfortably in the Vatican Gardens near Francis, the humble Celestine was dragged out of his hermitage and imprisoned by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, who feared his installation as an antipope.)

Mr. Friscotti, a retired phone technician, said posing with pilgrims and occasionally imparting a blessing to tourists was the least he and his friends could do. “We let them think what they want to think,” he said. “It makes them happier.”

Some extras said they were assigned to portray an actual cardinal during the historic conclave that elected Francis. Renato Abbate, 74, a writer, said that one of those real cardinals drove past him and his friends and looked as if he were sizing up “the competition.”

They thought they had more in common with Mr. Hopkins, who plays Benedict XVI, saying he was down to earth.

“He says hello to all of us and shook 150 hands the other day,” Mr. Friscotti said.

An extra in a priest’s collar added that Mr. Pryce, who plays Francis, was a nice guy, too, and recalled that when they were filming a dining scene in the Royal Palace of Caserta, he “was throwing bread all around.” Mr. Pryce, he said, also had the advantage of looking exactly like Francis.

“A dead ringer,” said Enzo Massacci, 67, a retired railroad employee who was himself a dead ringer for a Borgia cardinal.

After lunch, the production crew led a procession of pretend prelates, Swiss Guards, nuns and Vatican gendarmes under the arches of the Passetto di Borgo and across Via dei Corridori. They turned right on Via della Conciliazione, the broad thoroughfare that spills out onto St. Peter’s Basilica, where tourists and pilgrims filmed them and waved.

The extras skirted along the outside of Bernini’s colonnade, where they stopped across the street from three tents, under which the show’s stars and crew huddled.

Alfiero Toppetti, 76, dressed as a cardinal, leaned against the railing and stared at the tents as a counterfeit clergyman droned on at his side.

“In cinema, the less you talk,” he told him, “the better it is.”

A veteran actor who has appeared in several Italian movies and television variety shows, Mr. Toppetti stood still as a makeup artist fixed his hair and zucchetto and explained that, hailing as he did from Assisi, the home of St. Francis, he couldn’t resist the chance to portray a cardinal, even though the pay wasn’t great. “We do it for love,” he said. “A sacrifice.”

As security guards sidestepped speeding cars and ushered a few eccentrics (“I’m a friend of Jesus. Have a nice day”) off the street, the production staff started separating the fake cardinals from other extras portraying tourists and journalists.

Much like real journalists might, the fake ones took a load off on the bases of the columns near the home to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where Benedict worked as prefect before his election as pope.

Amid the fake news reporters, Thomas Williams, a former priest who is now the Rome correspondent for Breitbart News, stood out in a dark suit, striped tie and thick-framed glasses.

“I’m playing a journalist,” he said, explaining that he had joined the production as a script consultant, a job he had also had on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” through which he first met Stephen K. Bannon.

Mr. Williams, a conservative and great admirer of Pope Benedict, has in the past acknowledged that Breitbart “didn’t love” Francis, and said he made sure this production treated Benedict fairly. “There were some things that needed changing,” he confided as he rushed to his mark.

He and the other actors prepared to shoot a scene in which Mr. Friscotti and Mr. Toppetti walked directly behind Mr. Pryce, as Francis. Before they started rolling, one of the security guards brought me to the tents across the street.

Next to me stood Mr. Pryce, who indeed looked identical to Francis — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he got his white robes. He laughed with the crew about the microphone in his vestments and I took a picture of a woman rolling a lint brush over his black mozzetta.

A member of the crew demanded I delete the picture.

“This,” the crew member proclaimed, in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Holy Office and the home of Pope Francis, “is the dominion of Netflix.”

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