Pope John Paul II was an inspiration to millions. But according to Judge Bill Gibron, the recent movie made of his life will be rousing to few, if any.
The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes…literally.
As a young boy, Karol Wojtyla (Thomas Kretschmann, King Kong) faced several unsuspecting hardships. His beloved mother passed away when he was a child and his equally devoted brother died of scarlet fever while Karol was in his teens. Both deaths left an indelible mark on the young man's growing character. His response was to seek guidance and enlightenment in college. The Nazi invasion of his homeland prior to World War II changed all that. Again, seeking explanation for all the suffering he saw, Lolek (his childhood nickname) decided to join the priesthood. At first, he flourished, building up country parishes into powerful members of the Catholic faith.
After the war, though, the Communists cracked down on religion and Wojtyla saw his effectiveness failing. Even as a bishop, then a cardinal, the Polish state seemed determined to undermine his every desire. When his close friend Pope John Paul died after only 33 days in power, Wojtyla found himself at the center of a struggle between the foreign forces in the Church and those already making succession plans (i.e., the Italians). Thanks to the efforts of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (Bruno Ganz, The Downfall), he became a compromise candidate and was eventually elected Pontiff. Thus began the final chapter in his service to God, both as His messenger on Earth and as enforcer of His Word. There were plenty of problems, including illness and an assassination attempt, but Pope John Paul II never forgot the suffering of his early years. He claimed it caused him to be closer to Jesus, who also suffered for the sins of the world.
Though he passed away a little over a year ago, the specter of John Paul II still haunts the papacy. For many, the former Karol "Lolek" Wojtyla was the face of the modern church. A non-Italian (the first in centuries), the second-longest-reigning leader in the history of Catholicism (Pius held the position for 31 years) John Paul II's 27 years as Pontiff were marked by high visibility, extensive traveling, and in-depth dialogues with world leaders. He was not afraid to court controversy and challenged longstanding traditions in favor of allowing certain doctrine to fluctuate with the times. He was also steadfast on issues like homosexuality and birth control, making him appear as a contradiction in terms—at times modern and at other times medieval. Sadly, we see very little of this legacy in Have No Fear, a rushed-into-production biopic. Frankly, any attempt at explaining one man's devotion to God and to an entire religion is foolhardy at best. There is never enough time to get the depth desired. What director Jeff Bleckner (The Beach Boys: An American Family) and writers Michael Hirst, Lorenzo Minoli, and Judd Parkin decided to do instead was apply that age-old cinematic skimming technique: the illustrative example. They hope to use certain moments in the Pope's life to exemplify his stances and shed light on his beliefs. Unfortunately, the end result is choppy. Relying on vignettes, it fails to come together as a film or as a portrait of an important public figure.
With only 87 minutes to make its points, Have No Fear can feel rushed. Yet the minute Wojtyla is named leader of the Catholic Church, the movie actually stalls. It is no longer interested in the day-to-day life of the man who would be Pontiff, but instead wants to focus on what appears to be a collection of cinematic position papers. The last 30 minutes mingles important footnotes in John Paul II's life (such as the assassination attempt on his life and a confrontation with Archbishop Romero from El Salvador) with long passages of the Pope delivering homilies to eager, attentive audiences. While such an approach is indeed respectful of his views, they show us very little about the man inside. In truth, Have No Fear can't find a legitimate way of letting us know how Karol "Lolek" Wojtyla went from cynic to leader within his own religion. There are hints and insinuations: he gets teary eyed when a Jewish friend of his is carted off to a concentration camp, but there is never a scene where the future Pope lays his prayer cards on the table. Actor Thomas Kretschmann must accept some of the blame. He is so desperate to maintain the man's dignity and respect that he completely underplays the role. Most of John Paul II's dialogue is delivered in hushed whispers, while Kretschmann registers minimal emotion across his far-too-young face (even in old-age makeup, he looks like he's more than capable of piloting that freighter back to Skull Island). Subtle does not begin to describe the performance. Inert would probably be a better word.
You know you're in trouble when events that were crucial to this Pope's reign, such as the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the success of the Solidarity Movement in his own native Poland, are given the "meaningful montage" treatment. There are also several side characters that apparently don't warrant explaining or examining, including the older official played by Bruno Ganz. Have No Fear is the kind of biopic that requires the audience to have a working knowledge of the subject beforehand, to know why he is important and what issues surrounded his reign. In addition, there is surprisingly little religion incorporated into the story. How the Catholic Church works, how doctrine is developed, and how dogma is defended are not presented. There is a brief scene with Wojtyla defending modernization during Vatican II, but that's about it. At other times, enigmatic statements about faith and suffering are all the enlightenment we receive. History is forsaken, the make-up of the papacy is cast aside. Heck, we only get to hear a single snippet of the Pope's highly touted poetry. In essence, Have No Fear is a soft charcoal sketch of a man who was much more than a few carefully considered sequences. Anyone hoping to learn about the late leader's legacy will just have to look elsewhere.
Those amazing Miramax men, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, are releasing this DVD under their new surnamed production company and the results are sketchy at best. A TV movie originally, Have No Fear is now presented in a mock letterboxed transfer, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looking a little odd in this elongated format. Obviously matted to remove information top and bottom, the picture looks professional, if plain. Equally unexceptional is the Dolby Digital Stereo mix, which allows us to clearly hear all the dialogue, but offers little mood or atmosphere. As for added content, there are no bonus features here. This is a bare-bones presentation of an equally superficial film. While those outside Catholicism will wonder why Pope John Paul II was so highly regarded, they'll find little explanation here. As a matter of fact, for those in the faith, this look at Karol Wojtyla's life is merely exasperating, not inspirational. Guilty.
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