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At the conclusion of mass in an Eastern European Communist country, a beloved Catholic Cardinal is arrested under the watchful eye of a senior politico, the Interrogator. Before leaving the cathedral, the Cardinal tells a priest to remember that any confession the Cardinal reportedly makes will either be a lie or the result of human weakness. Brought before the Interrogator, the Cardinal recognizes him as a member of the former royal family and a resistance fighter. The Interrogator acknowledges the Cardinal's reputation as a resistance hero, then informs him that although the government views the church as insignificant, it is to be discredited through him just the same. The Cardinal responds that he is proud to have survived the Gestapo and is immune to torture. Over the next several days the Interrogator keeps the Cardinal awake in his cell by keeping the light constantly burning and interruptions by guards frequent. The Cardinal refuses to sign a prewritten confession and when brought before the Interrogator, refuses all offers of food or drink. The Interrogator is offended, reminding the Cardinal that before he became an attorney, he was a licensed psychiatrist and does not stoop to crass tactics such as drugging, but always gets honest confessions. The first session between the Interrogator and the Cardinal is secretly recorded but the Interrogator's assistant is unable to find prearranged words and phrases that might be edited together to create a false testimony. Throughout various sessions over many weeks, the Interrogator insists that the Cardinal acknowledge the danger the church creates by forcing thoughts outside the State and warns the clergyman that he will eventually break him. Although unflappable with the Interrogator, privately the Cardinal prays constantly. After three months, the Interrogator is summoned by the country's commanding General, who demands to know why he has yet to gain a confession. The Interrogator explains that the Cardinal is cunning and crafty, but that he will learn his weakness over time. The General cautions the Interrogator not to fail, as arresting the Cardinal was dangerous and has fomented nationwide unrest, exacerbated by the foreign press demands for a trial date. Later, the General eavesdrops on one of the sessions and is dismayed to hear the Interrogator asking the Cardinal about his impoverished childhood. The Interrogator insists that all information is relevant, but the General warns him a trial date will be set and physical torture will be used if necessary. Session by session, the Interrogator wears down the Cardinal, while acquiring vital details about his past. When the Cardinal learns that the army has been summoned to quell the national unrest over his arrest, he is distressed and angry. The Interrogator is also incensed and complains to the General, who is adamant that a confession be produced soon. In order to appease the General, the Interrogator forces the Cardinal to face evidence in front of a number of high officials, but the Cardinal easily deflects the questions, and exposes the "evidence" as manufactured and the recorded confession as a poor splicing effort. Upon being brought back to the interrogating room, the Cardinal is confronted by a body on a gurney, which he discovers is his mother, who he initially believes is dead. He recoils, then realizes she is still alive and admits to the Interrogator that he never loved his mother. Disgusted by the Cardinal's admission, the Interrogator resumes his job with renewed vigor. Although he struggles to keep his faculties from faltering, the Cardinal slowly begins to crack, spending a marathon fifteen-hour session complaining bitterly to the Interrogator. The Interrogator learns that the Cardinal's weakness is not pride, as he originally thought, but humility. The Cardinal finally admits that he did not come to the church out of love for God but in an effort to "cleanse" himself from his lowly roots and to prove himself superior. When the Cardinal admits this desire has motivated all his actions, the Interrogator is outraged that he is a fake. He insists that the only true way for the Cardinal to be "clean" is to admit publicly that he has deceived the people and challenges the Cardinal to have the strength to make this confession. The trial is now set and while an anxious crowd watches, certain the Cardinal will never break, they are crushed when he admits his entire life as a priest has been false, that his life was driven by ambition and lack of humility. He agrees to having betrayed the resistance and to having accepted money from foreign countries to create a secret arsenal. The Cardinal refuses to ask for the mercy of the court and collapses, pleading for God's mercy. The Cardinal is sentenced to hang and the Interrogator expresses regret at the efficiency of his work. On the day of his execution, the Cardinal learns from the Interrogator that the government has decided he would become a martyr if killed and that they are not only allowing him to live, but giving him his freedom to return to the people, who will always doubt him. The Interrogator offers to kill the Cardinal, but the priest refuses, accepting his future suffering as penance for a life of deceit and vanity.