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Jon Voight was originally offered the part of John Paul II in this TV film that came out in 1984 which was directed by Herbert Wise, but refused, giving Albert Finney the role instead. 21 years later, Voight finally accepted the role in 2005 in a remake for TV directed by John 'Kent Harrison' (8 months after the Pope's death) for which he received an Emmy nomination. See more »
Unlike Krzysztof Zanussi's FROM A FAR COUNTRY, Herbert Wise's POPE JOHN PAUL II stands out a truly early biopic of the Pope John Paul II. Its storyline deals mostly with Karol Wojtyla, the boy, the young priest, the bishop, the cardinal. That has been beautifully illustrated by another reviewer before me who gives us inspiring facts and vital numbers. In Herbert Wise's movie, there is nothing about John Paul II as the Pope since the film ends with the inauguration of 22 October 1978. In this way, it served as a film which made his person known to the vast audiences in the 1980s. Yet, as another reviewer before me nicely pointed out, the movie serves the purpose to depict more a man than a church leader. In what way?
DON'T MISS THE POINT... Made very much in the mode of a TV production (with its flashbacks and lengthy plots) POPE JOHN PAUL II relies on certain aspects in the life of this great man, not only the spiritual leader of the Catholics around the world but all people of good will. Seemingly, one of the major aspects of his mission that spanned almost three decades was UNITY that set forth a new civilization built upon peace and mutual respect. Hardly anyone of some sense of justice, understanding and tolerance (the last being one of the most fundamental themes of our existence) may pass his person indifferently. If viewers miss that point of unity, it is very hard to resist the temptation of partiality.
WHAT IS 'BEING A POLE?' Herbert Wise's movie's major strength lies in the insight into Polish reality and especially Polish religiosity which the director together with the writer Christopher Knopf memorably developed. Karol Wojtyla, future non-Italian pope John Paul II, was brought up in a country heavily influenced by its history, its sentiments, its customs and rich traditions. However, during his life, Poland was torn apart by two hostile forces, some of the most horrid monsters that arose in the history of mankind. Therefore, we must add one more theme to his upbringing context: fight for freedom amidst the storms of two greatest regimes of the 20th century: Nazism and communism. The former was conquered with the end of WWII while the latter spread its poisons far to the times when Wojtyla was elected pope. The characters, some fictional and some historical, reveal much of the thought and ideology that forced Poland to look the way it was from the 1940s (practically our protagonist's youth) to the 1970s. And young Karol? A noble character of youthful joy and enthusiasm who faces the ruins of his dreams and captivity, even death of his closest family and friends? Does he complain and mourn his plans that, naturally, could not be materialized, dreams that could never be fulfilled in such wretched reality?
No, he cares for others and learns to bring out the best of man. He has a Jewish friend, he helps Jewish people (note the Teitelbaum family) as well as Poles, he organizes a secret theater (his second love except for theology) among the resistance, he works physically in Solvay and, foremost, the voice of God takes over his love for acting. He overcomes every hardship with the rosary, complete confidence in Virgin Mary that he later as Pope manifested through Totus Tuus. It is very important to note that there are several scenes when we see him praying earnestly while the roar of bombs rage outside. Yes, these times made him a man of prayer and confidence. These times made him entirely aware that the last word belongs to God, to Love, to Life and Freedom.
CAST: Some viewers may have doubts whether the right actor/actors were cast for the role. While Michael Crompton is an almost perfect young Karol Wojtyla with the unique charm and gentleness of his face and striking intelligence, Albert Finney does no worse combining humor and seriousness, no fake holiness. Mind you his scenes with the youngsters or the cardinal who wears wrong socks. Unfortunately, he is usually compared to Jon Voight among the international audiences (the actor played John Paul II much later).
The supporting characters, mostly played by internationally well known cast constitute an interesting aspect of the film. While John McEnery portrays one Nicholas, a replacement of cardinal Dziwisz (which is changed historically), others play the eminent figures not only in the biography of the Pope but also in the history of Poland and Polish church. And...Nigel Hawthorne portrays cardinal Stefan Wyszynski - a milestone figure, the Servant of God called the Primate of Millennium; Jonathan Newth gives a convincing portrayal as Adam Sapieha, Malcolm Tierney is an interesting character of a communist sticking to a very subjective concept of dialog (consider the scene about the Corpus Christi procession); Robert Austin is a Nazi, Hans Frank, the governor in Cracow while Lee Montague is a memorable general Konev treading on the ruins, representing the second oppressor of Poland (mind you both appear merely in the meeting with Adam Sapieha). A mention must be made of Alfred Burke as Karol Wojtyla Sr and the first spiritual mentor of Karol.
THE MOVIE'S WHEREABOUTS: Just a note about the filming locations. Interestingly, the film was not filmed in Poland at all. Due to communist regime and some other circumstances that prompted the producers to select other places, it was filmed in Rome, of course, and in Graz, Austria.
Now, when John Paul II is a saint, when all seems to be a matter of past for some, this film constitutes a nice chance to consider this historic person once again in the universal need for a teacher of the significant human values like mercy, unity, peace, dignity, sanctity of life and hope.
An early but accurate biopic about the way of a Man, not merely a way to the heights of the Catholic Church but, foremost, a Way to human hearts.
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