I don't suppose that the Roman Catholic press office would have been getting their hopes up to much about Benedict: Trials of a Pope, Mark Dowd's curtainraiser to the Pope's visit to Britain. True, he's a practising Roman Catholic and former Dominican friar. But he's also gay and candidly troubled by his church's conservatism. And he started with this story: on the day of the papal election, Dowd told us, he'd joked with a Muslim friend that if Ratzinger became Pope, he'd have to give serious consideration to converting to Islam. He learnt the bad news when his phone chirruped and he saw a message reading, "See you in the mosque, pal!" It seemed unlikely that the film that followed was going to be accused of hagiography.
In the event, it wasn't anything like a hatchet job, or at least the hatchet was sheathed with a certain amount of human empathy for the rigours of the Pope's position. Dowd even concluded – with regard to the sexual abuse scandals currently enfolding the church – that the Pope (nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" because of the ferocity with which he defended doctrinal orthodoxy) was going to have to bark and bite a lot harder than he had been doing. And – though this may not endear him to the Catholic hierarchy – Dowd suggested an intimately human explanation for the Pope's dogmatic conservatism. It was, he implied, a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Before 1968, Ratzinger had actually been on the liberal wing of the Church, in favour of reform and greater openness. But after direct personal experience of the student revolutions in that year he became a zealous defender of inherited Catholic tradition. Hans Küng, a former colleague and friend of Ratzinger, and now one of the thorns in his crown, suggested he'd been frightened into obedience.
Not every witness was from the opposition camp. Dowd talked to the Pope's brother about his devotion to the liturgy and visited a creepy Fast Reaction squad of volunteer Catholic apologists, bench-pressing counter-arguments and repudiations so that they could be in peak condition when they hit the talk shows and phone-ins. None of these people was in any doubt that Ratzinger represents a bulwark against what he himself has described as the "dictatorship of relativism", the striking notion that, far from being in a position of power that it's been able to abuse, the Catholic Church is itself a victim of abusive secularism. The Pope was also praised for his defence of the notion of "objective truth" – nobody appearing to notice that simply because you insist something is an "objective truth" it doesn't necessarily make it so. And however even-handed Dowd set out to be there was no getting round the deepest source of his doubt, which was the Pope's conservatism on the issue of homosexuality. Ratzinger wrote once that to permit gay couples to adopt was to do "violence" to children. Better that orphans should be deprived of love entirely, it seems, than that they should be given a "disordered" kind. When it came to the non-metaphoric violence that Catholic priests and nuns have themselves visited on children, Dowd gave the Pope a wary clearance, talking to a biographer who credited him with acknowledging that the fault lay within the Church. But an interview with the Pope's press agent (what a thankless task that must be right now) came to an abrupt end when Dowd pressed on the deeply sensitive question on the Pope's own decisions with regard to abusive priests. Given Dowd's own feelings, I thought the film was creditably impartial, but I imagine the Church will be hoping for far less balanced treatment in the days that come.
Vatican – the Hidden World was an odd affair, blending the stylistic rhetoric of the corporate video with the allure of exclusive access. And the fact that they genuinely had got to bits of the Vatican that other film-makers hadn't reached only made you wonder more about the terms of the agreement. I take it that the Pope didn't say, "Here's the keys... go anywhere you want and let us know if you have any questions." This was a string of photo-opportunities, carefully controlled to preserve the dignity of the subject. There were some odd moments, even so. When the crew visited the Vatican's secret archives, for example, what should they discover on the manuscript restorer's desk but the original transcript of Galileo's trial for heresy, when earlier authorities used the threat of violence to defend the "objective truth" that the sun revolved around the Earth. Far from brushing over one of the Church's more ignoble moments it had been highlighted, as if to say, "Look... see how open we are about the failings of the past." There was another mea culpa moment too, when a German journalist for Vatican radio dug into the archives to read out a letter from a Jewish convert to Catholicism, who had fruitlessly pleaded for a Papal condemnation of the treatment of the Jews.
But despite those nods to humility, and a soundtrack that kept on whispering in your ear, "It's all a bit Dan Brown, isn't it?", the overall mood was never less than piously reverent about the current occupant of the throne of St Peter. An altar boy – whose yearning desire to meet the Pope provided a slightly ersatz thread of narrative continuity – declared that he is "the kindest person on earth... the bridge between heaven and Earth". Unlike Mark Dowd's film, they'll be selling DVDs of this one in the Vatican gift shop.