For all the documentaries and other productions on the life of Pope John Paul II I’ve seen over the years, I found that CBS’s two-night miniseries Pope John Paul II still had a few biographical surprises up its sleeve.
Take the rather unusual Madonna of Czestochowa procession led by the future Holy Father, then Archbishop Wojtyla, during a period when the Soviet authorities in Poland had forbidden the public exhibition of religious images. This regulation ended the longstanding tradition of bearing the framed image of the Madonna of Czestochowa through the streets of Krakow with much pageantry and ceremony.
As told in the film, Wojtyla, contemplating this dilemma, reflected that the authorities had not banned religious processions without sacred images, and proceeded to organize a full-blown Madonna of Czestochowa procession with all the usual pageantry, with one notable exception — the frame that traditionally held the Czestochowa image was empty. Though the Communist authorities resentfully recognized what that empty frame represented, the image of the Madonna was present only to the eyes of faith.
That combination of boldness, imagination, showmanship and unwavering faith was utterly characteristic of the thinking and style of the man who became Pope John Paul II. It’s the same approach we see him employ later in his famous run-in with Communist authorities over the issue of a church at Nowa Huta, the party-planned “town without God.” Unable to construct a church without government approval, Archbishop Wojtyla persists for years in holding Masses in an empty field, in every kind of weather, to immense crowds. As often as the Soviets bulldoze the giant cross erected on the spot, it is raised again. Eventually, confronted with their manifest failure to engineer a city without God, the authorities permit the building of the church that Wojtyla and his flock believed in so long before it could be built.
Not to be confused with the identically named 1984 Herbert Wise film starring Albert Finney, Pope John Paul II is the first — so far the only — dramatic presentation to do anything like justice to the life and reign of the 20th century’s most popular pope.
Earlier biopics, including the recent Hallmark Channel broadcast Karol: A Man Who Became Pope and the aforementioned 1984 film, end with the 1978 conclave electing the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years.
This approach omits the drama of the modern era’s longest and most important papacy: John Paul’s visit to Poland, the first papal visit to any Iron Curtain country, which led to the founding of the Solidarity movement and thus to the breakdown of Soviet control in Poland and eventually throughout the USSR; the 1981 assassination attempt; the visionary triumph of World Youth Day; the Holy Father’s struggle against his increasing frailty and loss of motor control.
Reverent, respectful, well acted and well-paced, Pope John Paul II does about as good a job at covering both halves of its subject’s life as could be hoped for in a TV movie. The miniseries neatly splits its two nights between the pre-election Karol Wojtyla and the reign of Pope John Paul II, with Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) playing Wojtyla from his youth to the 1978 conclave and Jon Voight (Holes) playing John Paul II from the conclave to his 2005 death.
Both actors do a remarkably good job at evoking the speech, style and physical presence of this most media-exposed of popes. Elwes particularly excels at projecting Wojtyla’s formidable intellect and passion, and Voight is especially good at realizing the Holy Father’s pastoral spirit and iron resolve. Both actors effectively tackle the physicality of the role, Elwes energetic and athletic as the younger Wojtyla and Voight giving an impressively controlled performance from the vigor of the early years of the papacy through the slow decline to that painful final public appearance when all the pope’s immense willpower could not coax speech from his throat.
In its first half, the film does a better job than the earlier Karol, in a comparable running time, at covering the important landmarks in Wojtyla’s life leading up to the conclave. In its second half, it covers territory no previous dramatic presentation has attempted, with the exception of last week’s rushed, poor two-hour Have No Fear from ABC.
After a prologue designed to grab the viewer — a recreation of of the 1981 assassination attempt so exact that although I watched the actual footage the next day I couldn’t spot any noticeable differences — the film flashes back to Wojtyla’s early life.
The screenplay, credited to director John Kent Harrison and three other writers, makes good choices in delineates the issues and experiences that defined Wojtyla’s early adulthood: his university life interrupted by the Nazi decapitation of Polish institutions; the theory of cultural resistance behind his participation in the Rhapsodic Theater; his rock-blasting work in the quarries, which kept him from being deported but also instilled in him a lifelong appreciation for the dignity of manual labor.
Like the earlier Karol, Pope John Paul II emphasizes Wojtyla’s bond with the young from his early priesthood, beginning with his kayaking trips into the mountains with students from St. Florian’s, where he would offer frank teaching on the meaning of sexuality that would later become his “theology of the body.” However, the latter film also includes the iconic image of the young priest celebrating Mass on an overturned kayak with oars bound together to form an impromptu cross, and evokes better than previous films its subject’s deep, lifelong connection with mountain landscapes, especially the mountains of his native Poland.
For all the research that clearly went into this project, little details suggest insider insight going beyond biographical accuracy, from the little jokes about the pope’s schedule running on “Wojtyla standard time” to Italian church officials at the conclave scrambling to get the correct pronunciation of “Wojtyla.” We also see John Paul’s sadness at the depths of misunderstanding and anger embodied in a pro-abortion protest — problems he seeks to address with his Letter to Women.
The film coveys, too, something of the pope’s sense of humor. Asked by reporters to respond to suggestions that his travel habits may be excessive, the Holy Father cheerfully agrees that he is traveling “too much” — but immediately adds that “sometimes it is necessary to do something that is too much.” This, too, is characteristic of John Paul’s unyielding sense of mission and his desire to pour himself out for the sake of the Church and the world. Following a fall in which his hip was broken, the pope is told that his recovery will be difficult and painful. After a moment, he responds: “Let’s go, I have work to do.”
There are flaws. Though more accurate than other dramatizations, Pope John Paul II does take some liberties with its subject matter, from the events surrounding his being struck by a Nazi truck to yet another fictional early romance (though more restrained here than in other versions). And an early conversation with Cardinal Sapieha (well-cast James Cromwell, who resembles the Polish prelate) suggests a more pacifist stance on resistance to Nazism than is probably correct (Karol is better here, emphasizing that while Wojtyla himself declined to take part in armed resistance, he said nothing against those who did).
In seeking to make John Paul II accessible to mass audiences, the film inevitably, perhaps necessarily, dumbs him down. In reality, John Paul II was so erudite and philosophical that sometimes, let’s face it, he was downright incomprehensible. Even his adoring students and disciples at university sometimes admitted that they had no idea what he was talking about.
Pope John Paul II touches briefly on some of the principles of the theology of the body but makes no effort to suggest the pope’s philosophical contributions in the areas of personalism and phenomenology. And while it touches on his opposition to abortion, racism, and oppression, the pope’s teachings regarding the dangers of consumerism and secularism are omitted.
But these are relatively minor quibbles. Pope John Paul II is a fitting tribute to a great papacy, well researched and well mounted, benefiting substantially from the active cooperation of Vatican insiders, authentic locations in Poland and Rome, and a solid supporting cast. It’s no substitute for the best biographical documentary on Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, but it’s a worthy companion piece.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.