Thursday, December 08, 2005

Holy Father Knows Best

A Mini-series Review

This last week I indulged in an occasional vice of mine, the television bio-pic. The directly titled Pope John Paul II aired on CBS in two parts last Sunday and Wednesday. The mini-series chronicled the life and times of the late Karol Wojtyla, 264th supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. This moderately ambitious venture was essentially divided into two films, one chroniclling Wojtyla's life in Poland and staring Cary Elwes as the future Pope, and one about John Pauls nearly 27 year pontificate in which Jon Voight plays the Holy Father. Voight is perfectly cast as John Paul, he looks incredibly like him. However TV's one time Noah is not the only big gun to appear in this network TV epic, James Cromwell and Christopher Lee are both solid and Polish Arch-bishops.

The first part of the series starts out with a young Karol who while a real nice guy, has the priesthood far from his mind. An existential crises prompted by his fathers death and the Nazi invasion of Poland, sets the aspiring actor on a course to becoming a Priest (an office which the Nazi's have forbidden any young Catholic to train for). Karol dose become involved with the underground, but as a messenger and refuses to use violence. After the Soviets drive out the Nazi's from Poland Karol Wojtyla does his best to keep off their radar, but eventually he is noticed. Ironical the communist mis-estimate him and because of his collage background and reputation as a dreamer allow Wojtyla to become Arch-bishop of Krakow after the old one (played by James Cromwell) dies. Wojtyla of course defies the communist as he did the Nazi's, but because of his popularity and non-violent ways the Russians and their Polish puppets can do very little about him.

Well that last paragraph pretty well covers part one, which is good as far as it goes but suffers from fits and starts and trying to cover 40 years in two hours time minus commercials. Also Cary Elwes excessive pleasantness evokes Tony Goldwyns performance in the PAX quality film Joshua. Elwes act grows old, and while it is not one note, it definitely is note fully realized. As a last note I must say that Cary Elwes white hair job at the end of the film was hardly convincing.

The John Voight half was more interestingly and compelling, the guy is a good actor. The aging and gradual disintegration of the Popes body is wonderfully well done, they must have had different make-up people then part one. While John Pauls battle against the communist and support of the Polish Solidarity movement is the primary focus of Wednesdays episode, all the late pontiffs greatest hits seem to represented. In fact by the final 45 minutes the movie seems to have degraded to a series of vinyets, we see the Pope issue his 'Letter to Women', the Pope found World Youth Day, the Pope react to the September 11th attacks, and the Pope (very briefly) say some words in regards to the pedophilia scandal in America. The highlight and most moving moment of the entire work comes at the end, when in his final days the Popes last and ultimately futile attempt to communicate with the crowds of well wishers beneath his apartment, takes on a whole new context. Previously I had found this last public image of the Pope drooling and attempting to speak rather sad and pathetic (in its original sympathetic sense), but in view of the background context the film provides, this last public appearance of the late John Paul II can be seen as a humble mans last desperate effort to serve as a pastor for his people.

I'm glade that I watched Pope John Paul II to gain a deeper understanding of this truly great man. While the story suffered from the constrains of a television format and budget, it got enough of the essence of its subjects story and spirit across to be worthy TV viewing.


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