Stories of Karol: Telling the Life of a Man Who Became Pope

Karol: A Man Who Became Pope isn’t the first TV movie on the life of Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II — but among the new crop of pope movies coming in the wake of the Holy Father’s death, it’s not only the first, but also the only one seen and praised both by Benedict XVI and John Paul II himself.

Much to Appreciate

Unlike competing projects currently in production at CBS and ABC, which began shooting after the Holy Father’s death, the Italian-made A Man Who Became Pope (shot in English and premiering tonight at 8:00pm ET on the Hallmark Channel) was completed within John Paul II’s lifetime.

Even before production began, the Holy Father met with Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk, who plays him in the film, jokingly telling him, “You are crazy to make a film about me.” After the completed film was screened privately for the pope, Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described John Paul II as “very impressed” with the portrayal. Then, following a subsequent Vatican screening the day after what would have been the Pope’s 85th birthday, Benedict XVI addressed “a word of admiration” to the director and star, offering some moral reflections on the film’s portrayals of the inhumanity of the Nazi era of Wojtyla’s youth.

It’s worth observing — especially since media coverage will inevitably convey the opposite impression — that neither pope commented specifically on the film’s artistic merits or historical accuracy, or offered an overall endorsement of the film. That noted, there is much to appreciate in A Man Who Became Pope.

Loosely based on Gian Franco Svidercoschi’s book Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II, the story takes liberties with the facts of the Holy Father’s life, but displays a familiarity with the realities of wartime and Cold War Poland and how they shaped Wojtyla’s life and thought.

The film follows Wojtyla’s trials and triumphs starting from the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, through the Communist occupation, culminating (like Herbert Wise’s 1984 film Pope John Paul II starring Albert Finney) with the 1978 papal conclave. This means, on the one hand, that the film ends with the dramatic events of the pontiff’s reign — the fateful triumphal return to his native land that led to the rise of Solidarity and the fall of the Iron Curtain; the attempt on his life and his subsequent electrifying meeting with his would-be assassin; the daring, visionary inauguration of World Youth Day — still in the future.

On the other hand, many viewers may be more familiar with these events than with the drama of Karol Wojtyla’s life before ascending to the Chair of Peter: the young Karol’s Nazi-era experiences with the Rhapsodic Theater, an underground cultural resistance movement; his war-era employment in a quarry, which left him with a profound respect for the dignity of manual labor; his kayaking trips as a young Krakow priest with the young people of the city; and his dramatic confrontations with the Marxist authorities, especially over the controversial church at Nova Huta, the “city without God.”

The first act, taken up with the atrocities and hardships of the Nazi occupation, is a bit slow, but after the Nazis are driven out of Poland and the Communists arrive, the story picks up considerably.

Real Insight

The screenplay, though not perfect, displays real insight into the future pope’s thought and ideas. The influence of Wojtyla’s seminal treatise on Love and Responsibility is plainly evident, especially in an episode from one of those Krakow kayaking trips. After causing one of his listeners, a young woman, to choke with surprise at his frank comments about love and sexuality as “the most exciting link between mind and nature,” Wojtyla goes on to comment: “But love is also a responsibility. When a man and a woman are united by real love, one takes on the other’s destiny and future, as if it were their own. That can mean a lot of strain and suffering, but that’s the only serious way to love. Not by making a game of it.” Among the film’s key strengths is Adamczyk, well cast not only for his granite jaw, thin blond hair, resonant voice, and lean, athletic build, but also for his sense of presence, charisma, and projection of intelligence.

Unlike the 1984 Finney film, which used different actors for different periods in Wojtyla’s life, here the 33-year-old Adamczyk plays Wojtyla from his university days to his election, giving the portrayal a persuasive unity. (Makeup ages him convincingly, though not enough; in the final moments at the 1978 conclave, the film cuts to real footage of John Paul II’s inaugural address, underscoring the visibly older look of the real pope.)

Adamczyk has said that he wanted to avoid reproducing John Paul II’s gestures or mannerisms, adding that the film should be seen as fiction, not documentary. (There have, of course, been a number of documentaries on John Paul II, the best of which is easily Witness to Hope, based on the biography by George Weigel.)

My familiarity with the Holy Father’s life isn’t detailed enough to be able to pick out all the fictional elements. Among the most startling, surely, are a Soviet spy who bugs Wojtyla’s confessional and eavesdrops on countless confessions, and a romantic subplot about a love that was not to be. (According to an online review from a columnist on Polish culture, the character of Wojtyla’s one-time love interest is partially based on a real woman with whom, as a young actor, the future pope once acted a romantic scene — and who actually appears in the film in a small role.)

Few of the actors will be familiar to viewers, but one who will is Hristo Shopov, Pontius Pilate in The Passion of The Christ, here a Soviet official who is one of Wojtyla’s chief nemeses — again opposing God’s anointed. (Shopov had yet another similar role in Walden Media’s I Am David, there as a Nazi concentration camp officer, once again passing judgment on a man he really knew to be innocent — and who was played by Jim Caviezel!)

A Man Who Became Pope does a fine job at dramatizing the life of Karol Wojtyla, but the definitive biopic of John Paul II remains to be made.

In the Works

What about the films in production at CBS and ABC, both of which cover the pontiff’s reign as well as his earlier life?

The CBS project is a four-hour miniseries that just began shooting in Poland and Rome, starring Cary Elwes (Ella Enchanted, The Princess Bride) as the young Wojtyla and Jon Voigt ( National Treasure, Holes) replacing Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings) at the last minute in the role from the 1978 conclave onward.

ABC’s offering, a two-hour film being shot in Lithuania, stars Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist), and will apparently age him with makeup like A Man Who Became Pope.

Without knowing anything else about either project, one might hazard a guess that the project at CBS, home of Touched by an Angel and Joan of Arcadia, would be more reverent and respectful than the one at Disney-owned ABC. Sure enough, that’s how it looks so far.

Speaking to TV Guide writer Michael Logan, miniseries bosses at CBS and ABC struck markedly different notes regarding their respective projects. Logan, who expects the CBS miniseries to be “ultrareverent,” quotes CBS’s Bela Bejaria as saying, “I think we’re doing it the right way…. People within the Vatican are giving us personal details about the pope that will really bring the character to life.”

By contrast, Logan reports that the ABC film has not met with favor at the Vatican, and quotes ABC’s Quinn Taylor characterizing their film this way (apparently in contrast to the CBS project): “Ours is a story of a man who becomes pope, not a story of a pope who becomes God.” (Whatever that means.) Another possible warning sign: the producers of ABC’s film, Lorenzo Minoli and Judd Parkin, also produced the 1999 Roger Young TV movie Jesus, starring Jeremy Sisto as a Jesus who was engaging and human at the expense of any sense of authority or gravitas.

Catch A Man Who Became Pope tonight if you can, because it may be awhile before its treatment of the life of Karol Wojtyla is surpassed or even equaled.

(c) 2005 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.

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