Not being Catholic, I can't claim any deep or special knowledge of Pope John Paul II's life or his works. I was of course aware of the broad, general mileposts of his life and career while he was alive, but I can't say I closely followed the man. So I was genuinely surprised and quite moved, actually, by the epic TV movie Pope John Paul II, starring both Jon Voight and Cary Elwes as the 20th century's most popular pontiff. Clocking in at three hours, and filmed at actual locations in Poland and Italy, Pope John Paul II tells the fascinating true story of Karol Jozef Wotjtyla, the first Polish pope, and an inspiration to millions of people, of all faiths, all over the world.
I had read superficially about John Paul's background, but Pope John Paul II gives a rich, detailed look at his early life in Nazi-occupied Poland. Actor Cary Elwes plays Karol during the first half of the movie, which grippingly illustrates the tragedy of the Polish occupation during World War II. Karol Wotjtyla, who planned on becoming an actor, is suddenly presented with a life-changing decision about his future when the effects of the Nazi occupation really start to hit home with him. Being a theatre major, Karol is directly affected by the Nazis' efforts to stamp out all of Polish culture, including all those people connected with the country's rich artistic heritage, as well as Polish intellectuals, teachers, and philosophers.
While many of his theatre friends bravely choose to fight the Nazis in the Polish Home Army resistance, Karol makes an equally brave decision to "go underground," as it were, and study to become a priest, choosing to fight the Nazis with God's love, rather than with guns and bombs. The Nazis, who recognized the dangers of the Catholic Church to incite resistance in the Polish people, actively worked to suppress the church and its clerics, even murdering them under the thinnest of pretexts. The Nazis' efforts to eliminate all undesirables included hauling off the many Polish Jews that populated Krakow, including Karol's friend Roman (Daniele Pecci). The sight of Roman being taken away in a truck and beaten by German soldiers steeled Karol to stay true to his calling, and to continue to work to beat the Nazis in his own chosen way. Other friends of Karol, including tough resistance fighters Eva (Vittoria Belvedere) and Marek (Maciej Marczewski), seek help from Karol, who aids their efforts, but who refuses to participate in actions that involve hating or killing the German occupiers.
At the end of WWII, when the Germans are pushed out of Poland, and the Communist Russian occupiers take over, Karol realizes (as he knew earlier) that Poland had only traded one oppressor for another. Clearly and staunchly anti-Communist, Karol, having read The Manifesto, understood that religion and individual freedom had no place in the Soviet worker's state. His rise through the Catholic Church in Poland, through the help of both Cardinal Adam Sapieha (James Cromwell) and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (Christopher Lee), is fraught with a tight rope-walking act in skirting the life-threatening restrictions on the church by the Communists, while still managing to stay true to his Polish and Catholic heritage and giving the Communists grief every chance he could.
The second half of Pope John Paul II deals with Karol's ascension to the role of Pope, and his various efforts to bring the church and the world, in his words, into a millennium of peace and love. Particular attention is paid to John Paul's active support of the Solidarity movement in his homeland in Poland, and the subsequent fall of the Soviet empire (the Soviet leaders were apoplectic when a Pole was elected to be Pope). Considering the length of John Paul's tenure as Pope (twenty-seven years), many years are skipped over in favor of hitting the major political and social events of his reign, as well as showing in great detail his personal struggles with Parkinson's disease that greatly reduced this vibrant, energetic man.
The first 90 minutes of Pope John Paul II, detailing the events leading up to Karol's appointment as Pope, is the stronger half of this TV movie. With singular attention detailing the Nazi atrocities and the crushing Communist occupation of Poland, this first part of the film can't help but be more compelling by virtue of its focused approach to these seminal moments in John Paul's life. Cary Elwes is really quite good at getting across the various internal struggles that pull at Karol prior to dedicating his life to the priesthood, as well as the agonizing decision to not openly fight the Nazis during their occupation. Elwes is adept as well at showing the emerging master politician that Karol became while dealing with the recalcitrant Communists. Elwes, a good actor who's rarely had good enough roles, projects a strength and moral clarity that's essential in getting us involved in John Paul's beginnings. His vocal performance is also amazingly suggestive of Jon Voight's voice, easing the transition when Voight takes over the role.
The second half of Pope John Paul II is less successful, not because of poor acting or direction, but because so many events during John Paul's twenty-seven year reign have to be touched on in just 90 minutes. Often, the later half of the film feels severely compressed in an effort to give a "greatest hits" feeling for John Paul's works as pontiff. Jon Voight, who at times looks remarkably like John Paul, is nothing short of sensational as the aging pontiff. Equally impressive illustrating this Pope's "common man" touch, as well as his savvy, politically expert dealings with world leaders, Voight manages to build on Elwes' early portrait of Karol, giving a rich profile of a deeply religious, deeply hopeful man. John Paul's final years with the horribly debilitating Parkinson's disease, are movingly portrayed by Voight, who's quite brilliant at depicting the physical difficulties of one suffering such a malady. After the film is over, one can watch the featurettes that include interviews with the healthy, vibrant actor, and be shocked at how complete - and successful -- was his portrayal of the sickly pontiff. It's a masterstroke of acting, and a highpoint in Voight's long career.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.