Koch Vision // 2004 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 27th, 2005
So are you a Vatican or Vatican't?
From poor Poland punk to powerful, prominent papal pusher.
As the world knows, Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005. This disc, which is a presentation of an ABC News broadcast special made a while ago, was released last November, prior to the pope frenzy that engulfed the planet in April. So it is not, really, an easy way for Koch Vision to capitalize on the news cycle and throw together an old special, market it, and sell it to an eager mob willing to consume all things papal.
Pope John Paul II: His Life and Legacy is an hour-long overview of the pope's life, featuring both the positives and negatives of his reign as the world's pontiff. The program takes an odd stylistic step, moving away from a straight chronological telling of Karol Wojtyla's rise to the big seat at the Vatican, instead mixing up his biography. The special dives right into the events that made PJPII a global power player, not just in the realm of Roman Catholicism but also on the geopolitical stage. This makes sense, as the visibility of the Pope during the turbulent Cold War era was undeniable.
John Paul II was revered as a crusader (oh wait, is that word uncouth these days? I can never tell!) for human rights, setting many diplomatic firsts as pope and garnering much praise and attention from all around the globe. One scene flashes the Time magazine cover declaring him "Pope John Paul, Superstar." This characterization is vividly portrayed though some scenes of his worldwide speaking engagements; truly staggering crowds numbering in the millions would turn out to listen to the man.
Despite the accolades bestowed upon him here, this program is not a straight-up cheerleading exercise for PJPII. In fact, there is enough criticism included for the disc to be called a feature of mixed reactions. While the pope is uniformly praised for his commitment to human rights, his charisma, and his willingness to reach out to other religions, his unpopular stances are given an almost equal amount of attention.
As one interviewee said, "Pope John Paul II was a great pope for the world, but a bad pope for the church." It is no mystery that John Paul II was a strict traditionalist, continuing to advocate unwavering stances against abortion, homosexual marriage, contraception, and women's roles in the church. These last two elements of his teachings are subjected to the most heat in the documentary. Several women speak out in interviews, condemning the pope's opposition to an elevated stature for churchwomen (a scene clearly depicts a scowling John Paul during a public exhortation for increased female prominence by a woman speaker). And the contraception issue is held almost wholly responsible for the massive exodus of American Catholics. But given the most screen time, and deservedly so, is the mishandling of the catastrophic church abuse scandal that plagued the United States. John Paul is harpooned for his perceived inaction, as he delegated decisions to other Vatican authorities instead of taking decisive measures. It is a huge blight on his legacy, but certainly appropriate fodder for a documentary talking about his legacy.
We also get tastes of his relationships with dictators and world leaders (Reagan and Gorbachev particularly). PJPII has often been labeled as a pivotal player in the fall of Communism, and his role, I think, could have yielded a deeper examination in this documentary. Some more time spent on his prominent role in Cold War politics would have been nice.
One more complaint, and it's a big one: A scumbag priest convicted of molestation is interviewed, and in an obvious potshot against the church's mandate for its priests to remain celibate, he explains how his crime was a result of his failure to repress his sexuality. What garbage. This disgusting revelation is nothing more than a half-assed justification for an inexcusable crime against a child. I've not much good to say on the way the church has handled these abuses, and I personally don't agree theologically with the forced celibacy of priests, but the fact that this repulsive interview snippet is included almost ruined the whole documentary for me. So what does ABC News expect me to think after hearing this priest? "Oh, because of the church's position on pastoral abstinence, this guy couldn't control himself and ravaged a small child? I see, it all makes sense now. I'm going to put together a protest at the Vatican!"
Ignoring that tasteless inclusion, overall I'd say this was a competent exploration into the life of Pope John Paul II. It's certainly not a fawning tribute, and his legacy does take a small bruising, but it's not overtly hostile to the Holy Father. I like the arrangement of the feature as well. Not until about halfway through is Karol's biography brought up, and at that point his upbringing and ascension are revealed. It's an interesting narrative step, but one I liked; instead of taking the orthodox method and spending time to lay out the documentary subject's life from the beginning, it starts with the more interesting stuff. Plus, it's a clever way to provide the context for his beliefs.
This is an emaciated presentation effort from Koch Vision. The program starts with a simple disc menu, allowing you to choose only whether to start the program or go to special features. There is no scene selection. Technically, there is also very little here to laud. Both the video (full frame) and the audio (Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo) are mediocre; in fact, this transfer probably isn't a far cry from the quality of the original television broadcast.
However, the four bonus features comprising the extras category are nice supplements to this papal package. Included are Good Morning America's 2003 visit to the Vatican, Robin Roberts's "Inside the Vatican" (a look at the art and architecture of the Vatican), Diane Sawyer's "Papal Apartments" (a tour of Pope John Paul II's papal apartments), and Bill Blakemore's "Papal Election" (an inside look at the 1978 conclave).
Pope John Paul II: His Life and Legacy is a good summing-up of the life of one of the world's biggest twentieth-century personalities. Fans of the big guy may be a bit turned off by the amount of criticism, but it's a balanced, provocative look into John Paul's nearly three-decade rule as the pontiff.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Good Morning America 2003 Visit to the Vatican
* "Inside the Vatican"
* "Papal Apartments"
* "Papal Election"
* Vatican Official Site