A "statesman of faith" and a "witness to hope," Pope John Paul II was also a poet of love.
As a young man living under Nazi occupation in Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, co-founded an underground cultural resistance movement called the Rhapsodic Theatre. Wojtyla remained to some extent involved with the group for three decades, even as he went on to the priesthood and the episcopacy.
In 1960, then-Archbishop Wojtyla published two very different works on a topic close to the heart of his thought. The first was Love and Responsibility, his great treatise on love and personhood. The other was The Jeweler’s Shop, a three-act play published under a pseudonym in a Polish periodical.
Subtitled "A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion into a Drama," the play’s "meditative" quality is evident in its unusual form. The three acts are not structured into scenes, and there’s virtually no dialogue between characters. Instead, characters speak their inner thoughts directly to the audience. There’s nothing of the trivial or incidental here; all is thoughtful, contemplative, considered. The style is mostly free verse, with a few prose passages. The opening lines give a sense of the flavor of the whole:
Andrew has chosen me and asked for my hand.
It happened today between five and six in the afternoon.
I don’t remember exactly, I had no time to look at my watch,
or catch a glimpse of the clock on the tower of the old town hall.
At such moments one does not check the hour,
such moments grow in one above time.
Each of the three acts focuses of one of three couples. In Act One, "The Signals," we meet Teresa and Andrew, a young couple engaged to be married. Act Two, "The Bridegroom," depicts a marriage grown cold and loveless, that of Anna and Stefan. In Act Three, "The Children," the son of Teresa and Andrew, Christopher, falls in love with the daughter of Anna and Stefan, Monica.
Michael Anderson’s film, praised by John Paul II as "the best possible film based on my play," doesn’t try to capture or evoke the play’s unusual dramatic form. Instead, it extrapolates the events in the lives of these six characters into into a loosely structured drama spanning two decades and two continents. The story is propelled by ordinary (though sometimes philosophically elevated) dialogue, and a mysterious character in the play, Adam, becomes a simple priest — a rather Wojtyla-like priest, actually, who takes the young people of his parish on nature hikes in the mountains.
Not everything in the play has been reduced to mundane realism. In particular, the mysterious jeweler’s shop remains a place of mystery, seeming to exist on a boundary between time and eternity. (In fact, because of the way the film locates its events in Poland and Canada, the jeweler’s shop mysteriously follows the characters back and forth across the globe!) The jeweler himself (Burt Lancaster), who sells each of the couples their wedding rings, implies in his first lines that he isn’t what he appears; and when Anna one night tries to return her wedding ring, there are a couple of moments of magical realism highlighting the indissolubility of matrimony. (The jeweler’s scale would come in handy at annulment tribunals…)
Another mysterious event earlier in the play is also included in the film, but not subject to the contemplation it gets in the play: A mysterious, haunting cry heard by the young people up in the mountains, and Teresa and Andrew later realize that they are meant to be together.
"It was rather like a wailing or a groan," Teresa recalls in the play, "or even a whine maybe… It was not clear whether it was a man calling, or a late bird wailing." A bit later she contemplates that night in the mountains, "full of nature’s secrets. Everything around seemed so very necessary and so in harmony with the world’s totality, only man was off balance and lost. Perhaps not every human being, but I know for certain I was."
Whatever the nature of this mysterious cry, it is somehow a "signal" to her and Andrew that they are meant to be together. This mysterious "wailing or groaning" of man or beast, together with the language about "nature’s secrets" and man being "off balance and lost," perhaps recalls St. Paul’s language about "the whole creation groaning in labor pains" as it waits "with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (cf. Rom. 8:19-23). Teresa and Andrew respond to this forlorn cry with the realization that they are made for love.
As in the play, references to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins bookend the film’s drama, highlighting the challenge of preparedness for a lifetime of love and of weathering the whims of circumstance, tragedy, temptation, and uncertainty.
The story doesn’t shy away from the obstacles and difficulties entailed by the commitment of matrimony: doubt, fear, insecurity, and ego are all explored. Monica, the daughter of Anna and Stefan, is scarred by her parents’ crumbled relationship ("Do all marriages turn out like yours?" she asks her father at one point). Christopher tries to assure her that their relationship will be different — but this only prompts her to wonder what her father said to her mother all those years ago to win her.
Christopher himself, meanwhile, faces self-doubt and uncertainty for other reasons: His father died before he was born, and he has no concrete idea of what a man should be. Yet his parents’ love, cut short though it was, had a permanence and fidelity that even now inspires him to pursue his beloved with hope, if not always with grace.
The Jeweller’s Shop faces the obstacles, but ultimately affirms that, in spite of all difficulties, love remains the vocation of the person and the hope of the future ("The future depends on love"). As translator Boleslaw Taborsky writes in the introduction to his translation of the play, "There are no easy solutions, there is no happy ending. But there is hope, if only we can reach out of ourselves, see the true face of the other person, and hear the signals of a Love that transcends us. To this state of mind and heart we are invited but not browbeaten." The film also invites us to this state of mind and heart.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.