ROME – Over a century before the era of fake news, a missionary archbishop by the name of St. Anthony Mary Claret became the victim of a smear campaign by the upper classes of Spain.

With a biography published after his death accusing him of an inappropriate relationship with a woman — another rumor circulated accusing him of an affair with Queen Isabella II of Spain — a shadow was cast of his character for decades after he died in 1870 at the age of 63.

Yet the reputation for holiness of the founder of the congregation of Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, commonly called the Claretians, outlived this black legend, and today the order he founded is present on five continents with some 450 houses and over 3,000 members.

Later this year, the movie Claret will be released in theaters throughout Spain, to be followed by Latin America and, producers hope, the United States. Originally set to premier in 2020, marking the 150th anniversary of the death of the Spanish archbishop, the COVID-19 pandemic forced director Pablo Moreno and his production company Contracorriente Producciones to push back the release of the film.

Together with Antonio Reyes, who plays Claret in the movie, Moreno was in Rome this week for a preview. He also hand-delivered the Blu-ray of the film to Pope Francis during the Wednesday general audience – “it’s the first copy we made” he told Crux on Thursday.

“The pope is an exceptional guy,” Moreno told Crux. “We are very Francis-like, and we see a lot in common between him and Claret. I completely agree with the fact that a shepherd has to smell like the sheep, and that is one of the things we wanted to show in Claret, because he is a multifaceted character.”

Co-produced by Contracorriente, Three Columns Entertainment and the Claretians, the movie goes back and forth between Spain in the 1930s and the life of the religious founder. The story narrated by José Martínez Ruiz, also known as Azorin: A novelist, essayist and literary critic who began his career as a political radical in the 1890s, before moving steadily to the right.

Azorin’s research showed that the “black legend” used against Claret was based on lies, and he helped popularize the figure of the archbishop, who was beatified in 1934 and canonized in 1950.

“I really like characters who dignify others, who are catalysts, regardless of the status of the other person,” Moreno said, explaining why he’d decided to carry on with the project. “He deals with slaves in Cuba and the queen in Spain, but for him, they all have an equal human dignity, and treats them as such, regardless of their social status. Everyone has their miseries, from the slaves to the queen.”

With a call to be a missionary priest, Claret felt caged during the almost decade he spent as confessor to the queen, who as a Catholic monarch played a key role in the life of the Church in Spain, including for instance, the process of selecting bishops. In the movie, Claret is shown trying to go back to either his life as archbishop of Cuba or as a missionary somewhere else. However, the papal representative at the time was adamant: Many would want the role of confidante to one of the most powerful people of her time, and if he’s unwilling to fulfill it for his own benefit, then he should do so for the Church at large, and for the queen.

Moreno and his production company focus on Catholic content, with other films such as Un Dios Prohibido [A forbidden God, 2012]. After deciding on making a movie about the founder of the Claretians, he had his mind set on casting Reyes for the main role.

“I didn’t know Claret,” Reyes said on Thursday. “I had heard, of course, about the Jesuits, or the Franciscans, but knew nothing of the Claretians. Pablo introduced him to me and I was blown away. It was an incredible challenge, not only because it’s the leading role, but because we’re telling the life of a very complex man, with very high cultural, historical and spiritual levels. And I think it’s very important to tell the story of this man in our times.”

Much like many in the Spanish city of Andalucia, known for its colorful Holy Week processions, Reyes too was once a part one of the brotherhoods that carry the sacred images through the city streets. Today, however, he’s “farther away” from the Catholic faith of his youth, but acknowledges it as “the roots of my life, because you cannot truly leave behind that with which you grew up.”

Still, he was enraptured by the man who was Claret: “It was an important discovery at a personal level, seeing that we have things in common, such as many values and the fact that we cannot tolerate injustices. I think the world today needs more people like him … He was basically the Batman of his time.”

The idea of the religious man being a superhero was not completely foreign to the mind of the director, who said he tried to capture “the everyday heroics” of Claret through an overtly Catholic film that, he says, is still addressed to everyone and “will hopefully touch everyone.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma