Venice, 1958, the tidings about pope Pius XII's death do not seem to devastate the city's beloved patriarch, Angelo Roncalli - once foreseen by Pope Benedict XV to be "God's Traveller" now an elderly cardinal who never travels for free and pays for his tickets, does not yet expect that the coming conclave will soon elect him the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Who is this man who appears to be exceptionally sympathetic? There is something very humane, something very touching and captivating about his persona, some kind of spiritual 'pontifex' - bridge for the dawn of new era and yet, paradoxically, labeled by some as a "transitional pope."
Like most of the biopics with typical TV productions style, Giorgio Capitani's movie (made along with IL PAPA BUONO with Bob Hoskins in the lead) does reveal certain mainstays of its genre. Its length, its low budget, its mode in general and, particularly, its flashbacks through which the story is told is nothing new. And yet, like with the historic Pope, there is something absorbing here.
Let me skip the chronology and concentrate on the second part first in order to better understand its lasting effect. Chronology does not play any role in the movie but the film rather aims at certain points in the life of this extraordinary man. The movie's major strength lies in the excellent, towering portrayal by Edward Asner. He depicts elderly Angelo Roncalli with certain vitality, unique charm, touching humanity and far from saccharine sweetness. Foremost, however, he portrays a man of exceptional integrity excluding, when necessary, all sorts of emotional sentiments.
To understand the phenomenon of this pope who succeeded Pius XII, the pontiff affected so intensely by the cruelty of WWII, we must consider his mission holistically: if there is sin in the world, there is tragedy and suffering, there also follows Grace and Joy along with the supreme ideal of this man's life: PEACE. No coincidence John XXIII is called "Pope of Peace" and his motto was OBEDIENCE AND PEACE. His ecumenical undertakings and his famous encyclical PACEM IN TERRIS has, undeniably, touched the entire world, not only Catholics but all people of good will, tired of war and vanity. It is crucial to feel this combination of heart and mind, of being a church authority and being a pastor of ordinary people who is close to them. Edward Asner manages to capture that exceptional link, spiritual, humane, psychological and emotional link that Pope John XXIII had with all the people he dealt with no matter if it was a cardinal of opposite viewpoints (consider cardinal Ottaviani) or a couple in love, or an Orthodox Church leader (consider beautiful scenes in Bulgaria), children or prisoners. His deep love to all humanity inspired by Christ's Love that cardinal Ottaviani (Claude Rich) mentions at the end of the movie was the driving force of his life, revealed also within the spirit of Vatican Council II.
Although most of the things seem to be around Edward Asner's performance who attracts our attention, let me mention some supporting performers that enrich the entire story. Here kudos to Massimo Ghini as young Roncalli, great credit to Claude Rich as cardinal Ottaviani, Michael Mendl as cardinal Tardini, Paolo Gasparini as Monsignor Loris Capovilla and Franco Interlenghi as cardinal Radini Tedeschi, Roncalli's "spiritual mentor." Tedeschi's death scene (historically he died two days after Pope Pius X whom he so much respected) is one of the most touching scenes of the film. The plot again focuses on one crucial point: being close to ordinary people (consider the archbishop's ring). Note: The relation between Angelo Roncalli and Radini Tedeschi is nicely developed by Alden Hatch in his book A MAN NAMED JOHN.
The idea hidden behind Part I slightly differs. It is more an 'introduction' that helps us better understand who Angelo Roncalli was. Nevertheless, the director manages to retain continuity and give a general picture of the events, the events that are there for very specific reasons. It's not only the attention drawn on one man but rather a certain method, a new method of evangelizing. Ecumenism, no conversion by force but respect of differences and similarities alike. Speak upon the heart of modern man... that was the driving force of the Vatican Coucil II. It is best expressed in the scenes of Bulgaria where Angelo Roncalli was a nuncio in the 1930s and the train of the Jews to Istanbul (what an exchange of a Rosary and a Star of David). Pity that the film gives such a condensed picture of Roncalli's perfect relations with the youth and the erection of Casa Dello Studente, his initiative. That could have been depicted instead of lengthy conclave scenes. But it is impossible to show such a rich and fruitful life in a 3 hour-film.
Purely artistic values of the movie emerge especially at the mainstay music score by Marco Frisina. Sometimes, the theme tune (that concerns the Pacem In Terris encyclical) appears far to often, may occur disturbing at certain moments. You can be sure the score will sound in your ears long after you are done with viewing the movie. Nevertheless, it manifests the entire feel of the story and beautifully corresponds to the profound spirit of Pope of Peace..."What really matters is peace" (as the protagonist says to cardinal Ottaviani.
Obedient Peacemaker speaks upon the heart of mankind...a unique ability that this man learned on his way paved with tears and trust, marked by finding oneself and abandoning oneself and so skillfully incorporated into his barely transitional but rather extremely creative 5 year-long pontificate as John XXIII. But foremost a Grace he received in his lifelong friendship with the Holy Spirit keeping the flame burning, his own candle of gratitude. A Great man who was never content with what he has done and strove for more...being a child deep down far beyond his grave and ahead of his times.
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