A movie originally aired on CBS television, December 2005, 180 minutes, DVD
Pope John Paul II - Jon Voight
Karol Wojtyla up to his election as Pope John Paul II - Cary Elwes
Cardinal Adam Sapieha - James Cromwell
Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski - Christopher Lee
Stanislaw Dziwisz - Wenanty Nosul
Cardinal Agostino Casaroli (Vatican Secretary of State) - Ben Gazzara
directed by John Kent Harrison
This is a touching, detailed and very intimate portrayal of Pope John Paul II. Though produced for television, it has some very fine acting, and was filmed on location in Poland and Italy.
The pope's early life and work in Poland as a priest, bishop and cardinal are framed as a flashback at the time when the Holy Father was shot in St. Peter's Square (May 13, 1981). There are a few quick glimpses of his childhood before we are transported back to Krakow, Poland in 1939. Karol is a young man, interested in the theater, when the Nazis invade Poland. He and his friends struggle with how to respond to this invasion, which not only threatens their Jewish friends and neighbors (including some in Karol's close circle of friends), but seeks to destroy Poland as a people and a culture in its entirety. While searching for answers to these questions, he finds himself finally drawn to the priesthood.
There are many wonderful events and ideas woven into these scenes from his youth. We see him as a person with great depth, a fine mind, a deep faith and a great sense of humor. In the movie, his views on a number of issues are expressed (such as his philosophical and theological objections to Communism), but we are also able to see where they came from because the movie gives them some context.
Karol Wojtyla is a rather unconventional priest and bishop who leads camping trips with young people into the mountains for the purpose of recreation and formation. He speaks to them openly about sexuality (this scene is very beautifully done - I let my children watch this). He wiggles around the rules of the Communists in order to keep pressure on the anti-religious government and keep the people strong in their faith. One of the highlights of the film, for us, was a scene in which he simply removes the picture of Our Lady from a frame (in order to comply with rules about not displaying religious images in public) while still holding a traditional religious parade through the streets of Krakow with everyone dressed in their full regalia, the frame fully ornamented with flowers and ribbons and everyone singing with all their hearts.
There are so many interesting and delightful elements to the story that I can only touch on a few here. I found the camraderie between the archbishops of Krakow (Sapieha and then Wojtyla) and Warsaw (Wyszynski) particularly interesting. Another beautiful scene is during the papal conclave when Wojtyla realizes that he may be a candidate for the papacy. He seeks guidance from Wyszynski who reminds him of the story of Quo Vadis. It is difficult to explain the beauty of this scene, but it is thoughtfully done and is subtly pivotal to the story.
When Karol Wojtyla is elected pope, Jon Voight takes over in the leading role. The latter half of the film portrays events that are more familiar to the American public. The director personally interviewed Pope John Paul II's longtime secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and his spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls to uncover many beautiful and touching details about his papacy that were included in the film. The actors playing the Pope's personal secretary and the Vatican Secretary of State are exquisitely cast and wonderfully portrayed.
The movie doesn't attempt to record every event of his 26 year papacy. Rather, it paints a picture of his personality, of his faith and of his challenges and struggles - whether with Communism, materialism or painful injuries and illnesses. Particularly memorable are his visits to his homeland and his strong connection with the youth there.
On the whole, I would consider the movie suitable for family viewing with the exception of some shooting and other violence (when the Holy Father is shot in St. Peter's Square, during the Nazi occupation and, less so, during the Communist rule) that might be unsuitable for younger children. I would estimate that this would have received a PG rating if it had been shown in the theaters. This also would make a fine introduction to the life of this great pope for those who would like to go on to read more detailed biographies, such as Witness to Hope by George Wiegel.
The only down-side is relatively minor, but I believe bears mentioning for movie buffs out there. Though the filmmakers took excellent advantage of beautiful architecture in Rome and Poland, there are just a few crowd scenes, with dubbed-in backgrounds, that came out looking rather fake.
Reviewed by Alicia Van Hecke (11-15-06)
Available from johnpaul2movie.com