The Life of Pope John Paul II

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Thomas Kretschmann, Bruno Ganz, Jasper Harris, Joaquim de Almeida
Director:  Jeff Bleckner
Video:  Color Widescreen 1.78:1
Audio: English and Spanish Dolby 2.0
Studio:  Weinstein Company
Features:  None
Length:  87 minutes
Release date: 
April 25, 2006

“The question is: how does the Church address and live in the modern world while never sacrificing or remanding the truth of its message, which is not of Man, but of God?”

Film ***1/2

This special is a well-organized, briskly paced and well-acted portrayal of one of the most well-known figures of modern times.  Kretschmann’s portrayal of Karol Wotyla, known to the world as Pope John Paul II, is warm and entirely believable.  He captures the simplicity and the majesty of a confident, hard-working disciplinarian who was also so in love with the gospel and God’s people that he longed to be among them as often as possible, traveling the world over many times and reaching out to leaders of other religions.  Surviving an assassination attempt, he even visited and forgave his shooter, taking the commands of Jesus Christ very literally and setting an example for believers all over the world.   He even embraced the communist leader of Poland when Solidarity began its inevitable momentum, which might never have happened if they had not known that the spiritual leader of more than a billion people stood behind them.

John Paul II managed to greatly increase the majesty, weight, and influence of the Vatican and yet also became closer to the people of God than practically any other pope.  He saw past popes as prisoners of Rome, and he demanded to be out in the world.  He also lamented the growing materialism and legalism of abortion in Europe and especially in Poland after Communism fell.  He echoed Leonard Bernstein in calling modern culture one of death.  He also lamented materialism, asking for a return to God and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He even modified the practice of reciting the Rosary, which I doubt would have been taken seriously from a man not so devoted to prayer. 

His dedication to the sanctity of life in all forms lasted until the very end, when he refused to retire even though he clearly was not able to execute his duties.  He saw no shame in physical suffering, aging, or disease.  He said that when he was young, he feared the aged and those who were suffering.  But he showed the world, to the very end, not to be afraid of suffering or death itself.  Those who suffer should not hide or be shuttered away.    He said that he could no more step down from the papacy just because of his age any more than Jesus Christ himself could step down from the cross.  He also championed the young as the hope and optimism for the world:

“Never, ever give up on hope.  You are young.  If the young are no filled with hope, then nobody is.   It’s true that terrible things happen.  Terribly things have always happened, but that is never a reason to be pessimistic or give up hope.  I plead with you young people, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged.  Fulfill everything that is inside you as human beings.  That is why you were born!”

Every movie or television show seems to have its own point of view, and the good ones do not try to be something other than they are not.  This movie clearly attempts, and largely succeeds, on simply portraying an extraordinary life.  The reason that Job Paul II was so popular was not because he was Catholic, but because he was an extraordinarily faithful and hard working human being.  His charisma and enthusiasm seemed so new and fresh, as though the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council were only theological premonitions waiting for a leader to bring them to life in a modern world without losing the essence of the gospel itself. 

Even an atheist can watch this excellent production and marvel at Wotyla’s incredible life, with its incredible highs and lows.  Losing both parents and a brother at an early age, going to the seminary at night in secret while working in a quarry for the Nazis during the day, his meteoric rise in the church hierarchy and extraordinary scholastic and theatrical talent in school are portrayed as equal ingredients.  We feel like we know him personally through such as excellent movie such as this.  He saw the hand of God in everything around him.  Few countries have been divided more times in war than Poland, and the Nazis and Communists nearly obliterated everything that made the country what it was, including its large Jewish population.  Karol knew that there was good and evil in the world, and was able to see the good in leaders of other religions and stand up without hesitation to political enemies of faith. 

An early love interest, a Jewish girl, flees to Palestine before the Nazis come.  When their invasion is imminent, he runs home to tell his father, only to find him dead.  He watched dear friends be taken away, never to be seen again.  Few people knew greater loss and saw more suffering than this scholar and actor, yet he lived on, obviously because something special was meant for him.   He asked God why he was spared, and not others.  Even though all churches were closed, and many priests were taken away, he felt strongly the call from God.  When he became a Cardinal, he almost saw it as a punishment, not a reward.  When he realized that his election was imminent, he begged not to have this responsibility thrust upon him.  But when it was, he accepted it, and he did not hesitate to tell the Soviets to get out of Poland and ask for peace and understanding throughout the world.  As I write this, it has been revealed that the Soviets were indeed behind the attempt on his life, and how different might history have been if Ronald Reagan and this pope—or just one of them—had not survived. 

A man who could collect all of his belongings into one suitcase had been elected one of the most powerful men in the world.  Upon his return to Poland, the Communists must have thought that Jesus himself had deplaned and come to judge them.  How different would history have been if he not been the first Slavic pope ever, the first non-Italian in more than four centuries, the first pope who was a parish priest, a manual laborer, and still the recipient of two doctorates?  But most of all, he sought humility and a closeness to God. 

I have only deducted half of one star because the film moves so terribly fast, we can hardly catch our breath and absorb all of the details of such an extraordinary life, and because of an absence of any features such as interviews or behind the scenes footage.  The film does occasionally use actual footage from St. Peter’s,  which diminishes its effect slightly, but obviously television movie budgets have some limitations. 

Video ***1/2

Standard quality for modern films, with very lush colors and authentic church vestments and attractive landscapes.

Audio ***1/2

Only Dolby Stereo but with an excellent mix of sound and dialogue as well as a romantic and uplifting soundtrack. 

Features:  Zero Stars



One of the best biographical films in years, Have No Fear will inspire a viewer of any faith or nationality and will probably be the standard film biography of one of the most influential and well-loved figures of modern times.

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