Elvis, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana walk into a documentary
The opening disclaimer of The Faithful makes it quite clear that the documentary is, indeed, about Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana, with the images therein being used under fair use without permission from the relevant rights holders. Yet the first five minutes is rather disorienting and elegaic, revolving around a close friend of director Annie Berman who met an unfortunate fate. That scene put me in a skeptical mood for the rest of the movie, although Berman does indeed circle back to that framing in a disturbing, albeit appropriate, way.
Fundamentally The Faithful is a movie about fandoms–but not in the sense we generally use that word, because Elvis, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana are, or were, real people. Take this as an artifact of the documentary’s archival footage, much of it dating to the 20th century when video cameras were still a crude, grainy novelty. Berman also has the unique approach of not filming The Faithful either as a fan or an outsider. She is, we might say, a reluctant fan, fascinated by the idea of a papal lollipop yet somewhat ashamed to be a Jew who runs around the world catching glimpses of the Pope.
Yet whatever Berman’s personal shame, it’s difficult to watch The Faithful and not end up wondering what exactly the Vatican is thinking with its merchandising schemes. Papal potato chips, papal shrines, and papal baseball all make appearances. There’s even a fake pope, clearly identified as having a distinct ear cartilage shape from the real one. The film also makes a note of dry irony about how Pope John Paul II himself preached against commercialism.
The media pope also appears to be the first one to himself become a brand, possibly with far-reaching consequences. I couldn’t help but think about Pope John Paul II’s two successors. Pope Benedict, still alive if old, resigned after eight years of not being an especially marketable pope. Yet Pope Francis, still going strong, has a brand quite comparable to that of Pope John Paul II.
The documentary itself doesn’t make this connection, but that’s part of what makes it so unsettling. On the surface level, Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana have very little in common. As Annie Berman moves in and out of her dreamlike monologue it’s only natural for any viewer to make their own connections. It’s difficult to fathom why all three public figures have shrines dedicated to them in the homes of ordinary people. Like, what’s the deal with Elvis impersonators anyway? Why are they even a thing?
As Berman explains it, or more accurately, explains it through the words of hardcore Elvis fans, there’s a unique element to the entire manner of Elvis that’s difficult to quantify. The guy was just really nice. As we see in various clips, he cracked jokes, bought complete strangers outrageous gifts, yet always exuded a powerful humility drawn straight from his impoverished southern roots. From there, we see a sort of universal appeal.
Berman even finds Elvis fans in Italy, of all places, one of whom claims that at the age of nine she started watching Elvis movies shortly after her parents died. Elvis reminded her of her father. The distinct, authentic quirks of Elvis made a powerful impression. In a lot of ways Elvis Presley, as his most diehard fans understand him, is completely distinct from the more sanitized Graceland image, which, in the name of the King’s estate, promotes a man who was more legend than borderline imaginary friend.
Berman goes out of her way to avoid picking a fight with the Presley estate, despite candidly admitting that The Faithful has long existed under a shadow because of the threat of a lawsuit. The Vatican and The English Crown are also concerns, though they aren’t as litigation happy in general. Speaking of which, Princess Diana is the awkward third wheel of The Faithful’s setpiece. Where Elvis Presley and Pope John Paul II chose their fame, Princess Diana literally died trying to run away from it. Or at least that’s the story. Or the myth.
The Princess Diana portions of The Faithful are also weird because, despite including archival footage of Princess Diana, the documentary’s only really about the modern image of Princess Diana as a noble martyr. This is in contrast to the great love story the press promoted when she was still married to Prince Charles, or their more tabloid-friendly breakup. But it’s also appropriate because this is the only real image modern Princess Diana fans see or remember. Devotees to Princess Diana at a memorial service describe her as an extraordinarily kind person, no matter how fleeting their actual contact may have been with her. The analogy between Elvis Presley impersonators or devoted Catholics waiting to catch a brief glimpse of John Paul II is an obvious one.
But the greater analogy, to which Berman does explicitly allude, is quite profound. Berman mentions a statement made by her therapist, that when nothing seems relevant anymore, a person is inclined to see importance in the irrelevant. It’s a poignant statement that matches up almost perfectly with the dozens of interviews Berman conducts, fan-to-fan chats with frequent references to obscure ebay purchases or graven images in which Berman herself starts to want to believe.
Fandoms in general, in all their strange glory, operate under this same strange logic. Yet I found the 20th-century shrines to the King, the Pope, and the Princess rather quaintly charming in their sheer lack of pretension. There’s no woke politicking from these fans, who appear to understand on some level that their obsession with these public figures stems from an emptiness in their personal lives, not a sense of innate moral superiority. It’s hard to fault them their happiness, even as Berman’s own voiceovers tacitly acknowledge the absurdity of these cults of personality.
In terms of pure information, The Faithful isn’t a good documentary. Sure, there’s plenty of archival footage, not to mention original footage of locations now lost to time, but you need some basic understanding of who the King, the Pope, and the Princess are to even begin to grasp the situation. Berman makes no effort to give us a history lesson. And really, The Faithful is better off for that creative decision. The documentary is experimental film at its finest, an unsettling look at kitsch from those drawn to it like a moth to a flame.