Stories of Karol: Telling the Life of a Man who Became Pope
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By Steven D. Greydanus
Karol: A Man Who Became Pope isn’t the first TV movie on the life of Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, but among the crop of 2005 Pope TV movies released in the wake of the Holy Father’s death, it was the first, if not the best, and the only one to be seen and praised both by Benedict XVI and John Paul II himself.
Unlike CBS’s very good four-hour miniseries Pope John Paul II starring Cary Elwes and Jon Voight (the best of the lot) and ABC’s pale two-hour Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II, both of which which began shooting after the Holy Father’s death, the Italian-made A Man Who Became Pope (which premiered in the US on the Hallmark Channel) was completed within John Paul II’s lifetime.
Even before production began, the Holy Father met with Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk, who plays him in the film, jokingly telling him, “You are crazy to make a film about me.” After the completed film was screened privately for the Pope, Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described John Paul II as “very impressed” with the portrayal. Then, following a subsequent Vatican screening the day after what would have been the Pope’s 85th birthday, Benedict XVI addressed “a word of admiration” to the director and star, offering some moral reflections on the film’s portrayals of the inhumanity of the Nazi era of Wojtyla’s youth.
It’s worth observing — especially since media coverage will inevitably convey the opposite impression — that neither pope commented specifically on the film’s artistic merits or historical accuracy, or offered an overall endorsement of the film. That noted, A Man Who Became Pope is a fine tribute to one of the most beloved and influential popes in modern history.
Loosely based on Gian Franco Svidercoschi’s book Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II, the story takes liberties with the facts of the Holy Father’s life, but displays a familiarity with the realities of wartime and Cold War Poland and how they shaped Wojtyla’s life and thought.
The film follows Wojtyla’s trials and triumphs starting from the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, through the Communist occupation, culminating (like Herbert Wise’s 1984 film Pope John Paul II starring Albert Finney) with the 1978 papal conclave. (Both of the other 2005 films cover the Pope’s reign as well as his pre-election life.)
This means, on the one hand, that the film ends with the dramatic events of the pontiff’s reign — the fateful triumphal return to his native land that led to the rise of Solidarity and the fall of the Iron Curtain; the attempt on his life and his subsequent electrifying meeting with his would-be assassin; the daring, visionary inauguration of World Youth Day — still in the future.
On the other hand, many viewers may be more familiar with these events than with the drama of Karol Wojtyla’s life before ascending to the Chair of Peter: the young Karol’s Nazi-era experiences with the Rhapsodic Theater, an underground cultural resistance movement; his war-era employment in a quarry, which left him with a profound respect for the dignity of manual labor; his kayaking trips as a young Krakow priest with the young people of the city; and his dramatic confrontations with the Marxist authorities, especially over the controversial church at Nova Huta, the “city without God.”
The first act, taken up with the atrocities and hardships of the Nazi occupation, is a bit slow, but after the Nazis are driven out of Poland and the Communists arise the story picks up considerably.
The screenplay, though not perfect, displays real insight into the future pope’s thought and ideas. The influence of Wojtyla’s seminal treatise on Love and Responsibility is plainly evident, especially in an episode from one of those Krakow kayaking trips. After causing one of his listeners, a young woman, to choke with surprise at his frank comments about love and sexuality as “the most exciting link between mind and nature.” Wojtyla goes on to comment:
But love is also a responsibility. When a man and a woman are united by real love, one takes on the other’s destiny and future, as if it were their own. That can mean a lot of strain and suffering, but that’s the only serious way to love. Not by making a game of it.
Among the film’s key strengths is Adamczyk, well cast not only for his granite jaw, thin blond hair, resonant voice, and lean, athletic build, but also for his sense of presence, charisma, and projection of intelligence.
Unlike the 1984 Finney film, which used different actors for different periods in Wojtyla’s life, here the 33-year-old Adamczyk plays Wojtyla from his university days to his election, giving the portrayal a persuasive unity. (Makeup ages him convincingly, though not enough; in the final moments at the 1978 conclave, the film cuts to real footage of John Paul II’s inaugural address, underscoring the visibly older look of the real pope.)
Adamczyk has said that he wanted to avoid reproducing John Paul II’s gestures or mannerisms, adding that the film should be seen as fiction, not documentary. (There have, of course, been a number of documentaries on John Paul II, the best of which is easily Witness to Hope, based on the biography by George Weigel.)
My familiarity with the Holy Father’s life isn’t detailed enough to be able to pick out all the fictional elements. Among the most startling, surely, are a Soviet spy who bugs Wojtyla’s confessional and eavesdrops on countless confessions, and a romantic subplot about a love that was not to be. (According to an online review from a columnist on Polish culture, the character of Wojtyla’s one-time love interest is partially based on a real woman with whom, as a young actor, the future pope once acted a romantic scene — and who actually appears in the film in a small role.)
Few of the actors will be familiar to viewers, but one who will is Hristo Shopov, Pontius Pilate in The Passion of the Christ, here a Soviet official who is one of Wojtyla’s chief nemeses — again opposing God’s anointed. (Shopov had yet another similar role in Walden Media’s I Am David, there as a Nazi concentration camp officer, once again passing judgment on a man he really knew to be innocent — and who was played by Jim Caviezel!)
A Man Who Became Pope does a fine job at dramatizing the life of Karol Wojtyla, but leaves the task of producing the definitive JP2 biopic to someone else. So far, the CBS miniseries is the closest thing.