Hard as it is to believe, given the salacious mix of torture, burnings, boiling in oil and lustful priests, this international co-production chronicling systematic persecution in the name of religion is, for the most part, a rollicking bore. Culled from archives opened by the Vatican in 1998 documenting six centuries of the Inquisition, the heavy reliance on recreations occasionally proves almost comical, with the material served better by scholarly interviews and artistic renderings. Perhaps foremost, at nearly four hours, it’s flabby in the midsection, even augmented by voiceover readings drawn directly from the “secret files.”
Granted, elaborate reenactments have become standard operating procedure when dealing with pre-video history, and this project — shot in Spain on a $3 million budget, employing more than 600 extras — does so in meticulous fashion. Yet watching these scenes play out against music resembling Gregorian chants while narrator Colm Feore portentously announces specific dates — “Aug. 10, 1551” — brings to mind “You Are There,” the now-silly-looking 1950s show that dramatized key events in history.
Executive producer-director-cowriter David Rabinovitch has divided “Secret Files of the Inquisition” into four parts, beginning with the 13th-century purge of heretics of Catharism, a dissident Christian movement in France. That hour includes a lascivious priest, Pierre Clergue, whose recreated exploits fall somewhere between Harlequin Romance and Cinemax after midnight.
The second hour details the horrors inflicted in Spain, primarily on Jews, in the 14th and 15th centuries, as Torquemada’s inquisitors presented them with “convert or die” ultimatums and then burned them in front of their families — the death by flame meant to denote “a foretaste of Hell,” as one scholar explains.
Night two shifts to Venice and further destruction of Jews under Pope Paul IV, whose death in 1559 spurred wild celebrations. Finally, Napoleon’s conquering of Europe in the early 1800s brings the nightmare to an end, allowing artists such as Goya to begin depicting the savagery of what transpired.
Rev. Joseph A. Di Noia, a Vatican undersecretary, is among those interviewed, but his insights amount to broad platitudes and at times sound like alibis (Hey, it was the 14th century! Who knew?) for the narrow-minded intolerance perpetrated in the Church’s name.
PBS certainly has a mandate to explore such historical fare, but this acquisition reflects the influence of the History Channel and other commercial outlets that spice up their historical offerings with the trappings of primetime soaps. And while those tactics can succeed at times, more often than not venturing this far back into the time machine loses much in translation.
Not that there isn’t a lot of juicy material in these “Secret Files,” but as viewing experiences go, nobody will miss much if it stays a secret.