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Case Number 10880: Small Claims Court

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Pope John Paul II

Ignatius Press // 2005 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // February 21st, 2007

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All Rise...

He was a man of many facets as well as God's instrument on Earth, yet Judge Bill Gibron is convinced that no film has yet to capture this amazing leader's social significance—not even this Vatican-endorsed effort.

The Charge

The man who would be King of the Popes, Again.

The Case

Karol Wojtyla always seemed poised for greatness. As a young man (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride), he excelled in his studies and longed to be a writer and actor. But then the Nazi's began their conquest of Europe, and Karol's Polish homeland became the Reich's first target. Under German occupation, intellectuals are persecuted, and it's not long before Karol falls under the tutelage of Cardinal Adam Sapieha (James Cromwell, Babe). The Church, desperate for new priests, offers the only sanctuary from the endless harassment at the hands of the enemy, and Karol thrives within the always dangerous situation. Once the Nazis are defeated and Communist Russia takes over, things go from bad to bureaucratic, and a newly ordained Karol confronts Moscow and its minions at every turn. This catches the eye of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (Christopher Lee, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and soon Karol is rising in the Church ranks. Eventually made a Cardinal himself, Karol is elected Pope when John Paul dies suddenly after 33 days as Pontiff. Desperate for a non-Italian to fill the vacancy, Wyszynski compels Karol to accept. Thus begins a near 30-year run as the leader of the Catholic Church, a time that will see an assassination attempt, grand global disarray, and a series of challenges for his native Poland. But this new Pontiff is different. He wants to set the agenda for world politics. Indeed, Pope John Paul II never purposefully shied away from an issue, and being God's supreme servant isn't about to stop him now.

A few months back, a DVD entitled Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II was released. Hoping to capitalize on the recent death of the beloved religious leader, it featured a decent acting turn by Thomas Kretschmann (who played the ship captain in King Kong) and focused quite extensively on the future Pontiff's boyhood struggles in his native Poland. With less than 90 minutes to make its point, and no authorization from the Church or the estate, a vignette oriented narrative had to be used. Instead of giving us the flavor of this man and his amazing career, we had to wallow through skipped over sequences highlighting John Paul II's "greatest hits." Now, under the auspices of the Vatican and with double the running time, Pope John Paul II hopes to get the whole story across. But this moldering miniseries is short on excitement and long on creaky Catholicism. As a matter of fact, one can actually set their watch by the number of times actor Jon Voight breaks out into ecumenical proclamations during the final portion of the film. Splitting the duties with a completely miscast Cary Elwes (more on this in a moment), the Oscar winner sounds like he's auditioning for a books-on-tape version of Vatican II. Indeed, the same scattered approach is offered here, allowing the many edicts and proclamations made over the course of his career to envelope and overwhelm the material.

In a very odd artistic decision, TV movie vet John Kent Harrison uses the assassination attempt of 1981 as a starting point, putting Voight and company through a very JFK-like recreation of the event. As he's rushed to the hospital, the Pope has his life literally flash before his eyes and then, before we know it, we are in Poland. We don't see the modern material again for another 90 mind-numbing minutes. As an illustration of the early years of Karol Wojtyla (the Pontiff's real name), this slow, trudging look at the Nazi occupation during World War II is horribly boring. Harrison's direction seems to have cribbed a combination of Schindler's List and The Winds of War. We get the random violence, the attempted "you are there" authenticity, and lots of shots of Prague and Krakow. Without ever mentioning the death of his mother or his brother (something Have No Fear focuses on), we are unexpectedly whisked away to the college years of young Karol, wannabe actor and reluctant member of the resistance. Perhaps the biggest difference in the way the Pope is portrayed between the two projects occurs during these scenes. In Have No Fear, Karol is scared and slightly unsure of how to take on the German terror. His inactivity during the war highlights and strengthens his battles later on when the Communists take over.

But in Pope John Paul II, Cary Elwes is more confused than cowardly. He is desperate to fight, and Harrison finds many moments where he can illustrate the inner fire burning inside the young idealist. One sequence finds him chasing a truck loaded with concentration camp-bound Jews. Another sees him absolutely angst-ridden when a female freedom fighter is arrested while aiding his escape. If Elwes were a better performer here, we might buy this noble inertness. But he seems guided by the need to match Voight's old-age turn, so we are stuck with staring as contemplation, eyes ever skyward in place of meditation and inner truth. In fact, it's safe to say that Elwes ruins what little drama we could derive out of seeing innocent Poles persecuted by the standard Teutonic terrors. It only gets worse when Moscow comes calling. Showing his growing gumption with a kind of smirking defiance, we are supposed to cheer as Karol lies, bends the rules, and generally flaunts his growing audacity. The movie misses all of Have No Fear's church politics, sentimentalizing the manner in which Karol rises in the ranks, and before we know it, Pope John Paul is elected and dead, and Elwes transforms into Voight during a classic cornball costuming moment. Indeed—one second our young actor is removing his Cardinal's clothing, the next, an aging Joe Buck is infallible.

Finally, it is interesting to note the differences between what these two films feel the Pontiff's actual legacy is. Since it is approved by the Vatican, we naturally see the start of John Paul II's beatification. There's a scene where he visits an old friend, riddled with disease and dying from some supposed Nazi experimentation. A few moments later—Voila!—the lady is cured. The doctor even goes so far as to say "It's a miracle." Talk about winking at the camera. Then the entire Solidarity movement storyline is played out in long, laborious sequences of obvious triumph. Have No Fear more or less skimmed over this material, wanting instead to focus on the time when John Paul II failed his fellow priest, El Salvador's Archbishop Romero. Indeed, everything about this posthumous love letter to a truly important world leader (something this film eventually gets right) feels propagated to produce a legend. It's myth in the making, from the Pope's decision to forgive his would-be killer to the misty-eyed emotionalism of the attacks of 9/11. Desperate to be the definitive record of one man's legacy as leader of the planet's faithful, Pope John Paul II will be inspiring for those already enamored of this man and his works. For anyone falling outside his particular denomination, however, this will be just another dull, derivative biopic.

Presented by Ignatius Press, the technical specifications of this release are kind of confusing. First off, the transfer gives away many of the movie's tricks, including the extensive use of green screen to heighten the crowd scenes outside St. Peter's. When sloppy CGI and optical elements aren't employed, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks fairly good. There is some obvious grain, and the colors seem a little flat and muted. Still, the grandeur of the Vatican—or whatever palace is passing for the center of the Holy See—is simply stunning. As for the audio aspects, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is decent, but nothing that spectacular. As for the added content, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes featurette (instructive), an interview with members of the cast (standard EPK pronouncements), a look at some deleted scenes (none mandatory), and footage from the World Premiere attended by John Paul II's close advisor and successor Pope Benedict XVI. It's an interesting choice of added content, helping us understand the magnitude of this project, as well as the pressures to present the material in the proper light.

There is no denying the importance of the Pope in the spiritual life of a Catholic. As God's messenger on Earth, he represents a direct and undeniable conduit to the Truth. Perhaps if more drama and less dogma had been featured, Pope John Paul II would be a better film. As it stands, it's merely a subjective sermon preaching to an already converted crowd.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 76

Perp Profile

Studio: Ignatius Press
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Spanish
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• 16-Page Collector's Booklet with Exclusive Photos and Interviews
• Deleted Scenes
• Special Cast Interviews
• Behind the Scenes
• Footage from the World Premiere Screening at the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI


• IMDb
• Official Site

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