Some figures transcend ethnicity, nationality – even religion. This is true for the Dalai Lama, this was true for Mahatma Gandhi and it was certainly true for Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.
When the pope died in 2005, he was mourned around the world as a man who spoke of peace and progress, and not just by Catholic faithful, but by people of all religions. It is in that spirit that a made-for-TV CBS movie put together within a year of his passing, presents the man so beloved the world over.
Although some reviews have described this film as “too preachy”, from my perspective this is far from the truth. Christian films can easily fall into the trap of being cinematic soapboxes for religious proponents or drab movies with either religion or drama forced in. This movie does not have that problem. Obviously, religious and political views will be part of any movie about the pope, but the film never seems to preach directly to the audience, never tries to tell viewers what they should believe and why. On the contrary, the film is presented in the same inclusive and accepting tone that John Paul II’s real life speeches so often employed. I speak from personal experience when I say this movie, like its eponymous pope, can reach out to people of all beliefs.
The movie traces the pope’s life from his childhood in Poland to his Nazi-fighting youth, his rebel status in the seminary, his controversial priesthood and cardinalship, and naturally, his long and eventful time as pope. Apparently, as a young man Karol is close friends with a Jew, a female freedom fighter, a laborer, and a would-be communist. According to this film, he had close ties to various aspects of 20th Century Polish life.
The transition from young to old actors is done literally over a matter of minutes, but I understand the filmmakers’ decision to make the change at the critical move from cardinal to pope. Other than the timing, the transition is a seamless one. Each actor seems perfectly chosen for their own part of the pope’s life. The highly underrated Cary Elwes captures the fun and faith of the young Karol, moving from serious member of the Polish underground to fun-loving parish priest.
Jon Voight does the same, changing from sportsman to hunched Parkinson’s sufferer. The film doesn’t shy away from the pain and unpleasantness of failing health and a slow death. Every brutal shiver and gut-wrenching drop of uncontrolled drool adds to the seriousness of the pope’s final days. A subtle and spare use of archival footage blends in easily with their performances.
Aside from the lead roles, other acclaimed actors lend their talent to the film. James Cromwell, an amazing actor still probably best known as the farmer from Babe, plays the fatherly and influential Cardinal Adam Sapieha and noted character actor Christopher Lee portrays Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, a person significant in the life of the pope. This recognizability does result in some unintended humor, at least for geeks like me. There’s something interestingly ironic about Count Dooku being told “there is another” in a hushed, serious tone.
The film also includes cameo appearances by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, played with uncanny resemblance by Mikolaj Grabowski. Named prefect for the doctrine of the faith by John Paul II, the future Pope Benedict XVI is shown as a confidant for his predecessor. He makes comments that echo John Paul II’s own statements when he was called to Rome and the elder pope quotes Ratsinger in saying, “It’s worth suffering for the truth, without such will we should not undertake that path.” Ratzinger’s appearances are brief, but foreshadowing. Someday a filmmaker will make the connection between John Paul II’s teen years hiding from the Nazi’s and Ratzinger’s teen years as a conscripted Nazi soldier, even having the two meet in a great clandestine moment, but this isn’t that film. Not that I would expect such a scene from a movie filmed with Vatican permission and screened especially for Pope Benedict XVI.
Of course, there is a lot in the movie that is true to life, or at least, true to memory. Because the film was made with the cooperation of the Vatican, many who knew John Paul II best talked with filmmakers during production. The “About the Film” section reveals just how much of the film was based on actual recollections, including what happened behind the scenes of the pope’s last public appearance as he expressed a desire to “try again tomorrow,” and a touching scene with an indigent man that ended up on the cutting room floor. The extensive behind-the-scenes information includes other tidbits, like the fact that Elwes had a personal experience to draw on when playing young Karol, as he met John Paul II when the actor was in his 20s. Elwes was delighted to play the future pope when he, too, dreamed of an acting career.
The pope is, of course, an international figure, but this made-for-TV production focuses predominantly on issues and events important to Americans. This can range from straightforward moments that touch on subjects like abortion and female priests to an extended scene that deals with the pope’s reaction to 9/11 and the subsequent congress of American cardinals. Even at serious moments, John Paul II’s sense of humor can shine through. In a phone call with US representatives he pauses with a moment of confused concern and asks an aide, “The Americans want to know if the Vatican has a secure line. A secure line – what is that?”
The film provides insight into his character that no unauthorized biography could have achieved. Scenes of the real-life pope conveyed his sense of humor. The pope is presented as a man who wouldn’t shy away from speaking his mind and took care to craft humor into many things he did. This portrayal is backed up by documentaries included on the DVD that show the real John Paul II telling jokes and relaxing in front of massive crowds.
At three hours, the film may be a bit long for some viewers, especially since it lacks the drama and action that often accompany longer cinematic epics. At least one theatrical premiere is included on the disc; the special Vatican City screening attended with appropriate pomp and ceremony by Pope Benedict XVI.