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Filmmakers show Vatican areas closed to tourists

A rare peek into areas of the Vatican that are off limits to tourists will air on public television stations next week, a decade after National Geographic first proposed the project.

Inside the Vatican, a one-hour special narrated by actor Martin Sheen, takes viewers inside the 109-acre complex that makes up the smallest sovereign state in the world as well as the headquarters of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.

Although the documentary covers the Vatican's more public areas such as St. Peter's Basilica, much of it was filmed in places that tourists and even film crews normally do not see, including the Secret Archives, the pontifical sacristy housing the Pope's ritual garments and chalices, and the laboratories where pieces from the Vatican's vast collection of artwork are continually being restored.

Producer John Bredar and his film crew spent three months living just outside the walls of the Vatican, “doing battle” daily to gain access to the places they wanted to photograph.

For their persistence, they were rewarded with an up-close look at the Swiss Guard, the elite security unit that guards the Pope, and some amazing shots of the sampietrini, the “men of St. Peter's” whose task of keeping St. Peter's Basilica in tip-top shape often requires them to perform circus-like aerial feats.

“To get the access and really get the understanding of the place was incredibly difficult,” Mr. Bredar said, adding that he and his crew had to win over Vatican officials and constantly earn their respect.

That required crew members accustomed to casual field attire to don suits and ties out of respect for the institution. “We called it wearing the full armor,” Mr. Bredar said.

“My crew guys didn't like working in anything that was confining physically, so I really had to talk to them. I said, `When you go on an expedition, you buy your gear ahead of time. This is just a different kind of gear.'”

Mr. Bredar said he found gaining entree to the various parts of the Vatican was much more difficult than getting permission to film at the White House, where he produced a similar project for National Geographic in 1997.

He obtained initial permission to photograph the Vatican from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, but then had to acquire additional permissions for each area he wanted to shoot.

“You've got to explain why and what you want to do, and each place is another battle. It was the hardest documentary film I've ever made, and I've made stuff in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and had all kinds of difficulties to deal with from wild animals like great white sharks to wildfire.”

None of it, he said, comes close to what he experienced with the Vatican.

The up side of meeting all the requirements, he said, was that he learned how the place works.

Inside the Vatican, which will be available in a longer version on home video next month, begins by zeroing in on preparations for the consecration of nine new bishops as the most prominent of the various activities going on in the Vatican at the time of the filming. It ends weeks later with the ritual in which the candidates lie prostrate on the floor of St. Peter's Basilica.

In between, viewers meet one of the candidates and see the Pontifical Choir rehearsing for the event, the master of liturgical ceremonies finalizing plans, the programs being run off presses in the Vatican printing office, and the new bishops' hats and croziers, or staffs, being prepared.

Interspersed between are some rare glimpses into the barracks of the 100-member Swiss Guard, where new recruits are shown practicing their oath of fidelity to the Pope. The guard's role is largely ceremonial, but they also are a trained security force and in some instances operate in plainclothes rather than in the elaborate, Renaissance-style uniform for which they are known.

The guard's tailor, Ety Cicioni, is the subject of another segment in which he is shown cutting some of the 154 pieces of fabric that make up each Swiss Guard uniform, completion of which takes 32 hours and three fittings.

Mr. Bredar said his biggest coup during the filming was gaining access to the Meridian Room, a frescoed observatory where a miscalculation in the Julian calendar was said to have been demonstrated to Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century. Pope Gregory later corrected the error by approving a reform of the calendar that deleted days and adjusted leap years.

To recreate the demonstration by showing a beam of sunlight hitting a sundial on the floor, the crew had to find a way to put smoke or particulate in the air. They suggested using a smoke machine, a cigarette, and incense, all ideas that were vetoed by the Vatican.

“So we asked them to help us and they came up with calcium carbonate, which at the time I didn't realize was chalk dust. Ultimately, they ended up providing us with calcium carbonate and an old vacuum cleaner. In a way, I couldn't believe they let us do that.”

Mr. Bredar said the papal apartments were one area he would have liked to have filmed. A decade ago, he said, he might have gained access, but he suspects the poor state of the current Pope's health likely figured in his request being denied.

To convey a more personal side of Pope John Paul II, the crew interviewed and filmed the papal photographer, Arturo Mari, who became Mr. Bredar's most memorable Vatican character.

“The guy is so completely taken with his experiences with the Pope ... He just lives it.”

Mr. Bredar first contacted Vatican officials in 1992 to express interest in doing a film that would tell the story behind photographs taken by Jim Stanfield and published by National Geographic two years earlier in the book, Inside the Vatican.

The film project was tabled for a few years, picked up again in 1998, and then was waylaid briefly by the Vatican's preoccupation with the Jubilee Year in 2000. Finally, after about four or five trips to Rome for preliminary meetings, Mr. Bredar was able to show up with a full film crew and begin work for the documentary.

He said the home video version of the film contains an additional 35 minutes and incorporates the story of Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified, a step in the process of declaring someone a saint. Interviewed on the video is Cardinal Edmund Szoka, former archbishop of Detroit, who now heads the Pontifical Commission for the State of Vatican City.

“Inside the Vatican” will be shown at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WGTE-TV (Channel 30) and WBGU-TV (Channel 27). WGTE also will air the film at 11 a.m. Nov. 25 and 8 p.m. Dec. 26. WBGU-TV (Channel 27) will show it again at 3 a.m. Thursday, 1 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Nov. 24, 5 a.m. and 2 p.m. Nov. 25, and 9 p.m. Dec. 25.

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