The whole concept is pretty outrageous and bold for its time (A film negatively portraying the Catholic Church? My God), but when on paper, it could potentially make for a decently made film about corruption and violence. When viewing the film itself, it is sumptuous and rich with the Italy suburbs and countryside. It's clear that Monsignor looks like an expensive art film and breathes a rich amount of culture. What's not clear, however, is how the story is supposed to work; what the audience is supposed to feel; and, how serious it looks like these actors are taking these roles.
Now the actors themselves can't really be blamed for this. Reeve spent a number of months researching the history of Roman Catholicism and visited a number of monumental locations in preparation for the role. As a priest, he exudes warmth and trust. As a lying and conceited crook... you can't really tell. He sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn't bring the full weight of his character's consequences to the forefront. Too much of the film's running time shows off his smiling graces and genuine charm, and not enough of how he really deals with his failures. It's not that Reeve doesn't try his hardest, because he was a fine actor (especially during the time of Monsignor's release). The problem doesn't really lie with the screenplay, cast, or cinematography, although the colors sometimes look a bit dull. It's the editing.
The editing and pacing is just all over the place with Monsignor. Some scenes are too short, too choppy, or too rushed. Key moments where an impact should be delivered are glanced over completely. For example, Flaherty's interactions with the Holy Father and higher-ordained priests are too cliched and too generic. Sometimes, it's briefly about how corruption is sin. Other times, it's a side comment about Flaherty getting promoted time and time again. The interactions with his Mafia friend and the don, however, are overdone and extremely cliched.
And then, there's scenes that are way........ too........ slow..........
The whole love affair slows the pace of Monsignor down to a complete crawl, with seconds feeling like hours and dialogue that reeks of similar patterns to what George Lucas would begin writing (seriously, there's a line in this film that goes "You're an ambitious man with an ambitious plan" and it's laughable). Key moments of impact that should be delivered are briefly glanced at and not given enough weight or time. The audio mixing is of extremely poor quality, crackling too often when the volume is raised and making some of the dialogue completely garbled and confusing at times. Finally, for about 80% of the film, the haunting and dark musical score by John Williams just feels out of place. Some cues are placed in scenes that genuinely do not need music, yet other scenes are left silent where music is completely appropriate and absolutely needed!! On its own, the music isn't that bad in comparison.
Only two scenes actually attempt to stand out hinting at potentially some form of greatness. The nun, named Clara, doesn't know during the affair that Flaherty is a priest - she only knows of his time in service during the war. However, that all changes when a full-on Catholic Mass occurs about 70 or so minutes in, if you've managed to survive watching the film for this long. The dozens of priests and officials, Flaherty included, conduct their processional into the church and at their seats, followed by the nuns with Williams's Gloria (full choir, organ, and orchestra) in accompaniment the whole time. It is here that Flaherty's lies are unveiled to Clara as she stares at him in horror, stopping the entire processional and gazing at his averted eyes. Flaherty, of course, feels nothing but shame, regret, and utter humiliation. It's a scene that is brilliantly put together and the only one where genuine tension is finally allowed to breathe for just a moment.
The other scene is when Flaherty is confronted by the Vatican for somehow letting $600 million get embezzled from the Church's savings. The only reason it stands out is because it's the only moment Reeve seems to finally take command of the screen with emotions other than charm or joy. It's the only moment Reeve can create a demanding presence with just a second of anger and frustration before the sloppy editing and production values overtake the film again.
Ultimately, it's the lack of risks taken with the editing that make Monsignor confusing, terrible, and a complete joke. The dramatic weight and impact of the film is over-the-top and hilarious because there's not nearly enough strong devotion to its own moralistic themes. Instead, it becomes a self-righteous parable of what rushed production flaws and poor craftsmanship can lead to. Monsignor just doesn't know what kind of film it wants to be. Some times, it tries too hard to be The Godfather. Other times, a seedy drama of underground romance. Other times, a dark religious film. None of it connects at all. Not a single scene.
Needless to say, it was not a critical hit with both audiences and critics, yet somehow made just barely over its $10 million budget. It was released for a limited time on VHS, but not on any other format of the time (LaserDisc, Betamax, etc.) and appeared mostly dormant after that. A DVD version of the film exists, released in 2012 by Shout! Factory, but is also rare. The score itself was released on LP and later CD a few times, the latest in 2007 by Intrada Records as a re-release of the earlier editions.
Monsignor was daring in concept, but failed to execute it credibly. If you're extremely curious about Christopher Reeve's early projects (besides Superman), then watch this one at your own risk. Otherwise, it's best left in the archives.