ABC-TV is not known for warm or even objective treatment of Catholicism, but last night's Movie of the Week (MOW), Have No Fear: The Life of John Paul II
, came off better than I expected. It's hard to know what File Mile Films producer Lorenzo Minoli wanted, and what ABC execs obliged him to want.
You can say the script was clunky, the crowd scenes had no more than a dozen people, and that they tried to jam in too many decades at warp speed. Welcome to the inherent limits of MOWs. But the production values were high, it was handsomely shot in Lithuania and Rome, and I thought, overall, the portrait of our late Holy Father kept a respectful tone.
Some of the scenes rang false, like the recommendation by papal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, that the Pope "absolve the Church" in America and try to flee from financial responsibility in the matter of the gay predator-priest scandal. Or the scene where the aging Pontiff keels over onto the papal carpet like a Douglas fir tree in front of a roomful of youngsters at Castel Gandolfo. I must have missed that one.
Watching one scene made my eyes roll with such force I could hear an ocular muscle pop. It's when Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador suddenly gets the behind-the-woodshed treatment from John Paul. Before you can say "liberal Jesuit," the gentle, intellectual Pope morphs into a stern authoritarian and berates Romero, "Your liberation theology is really Marxism!" Romero, with a tear delicately making its way down his face, tries to domesticate his agenda but John Paul cuts him off, "You are wrong! You must get right with the Church."
Oh, please. Significantly, this scene was preceded by one in Poland where the Pope jokes about misjudging how cold it would be. "Goes to show you the Pope can be wrong." After Romero leaves, his murder in the cathedral is shown, and then we see a contrite and embarrassed John Paul praying at his tomb. "Lord, forgive me of my sin, my pride."
Message? The Pope was as wrong about Liberation Theology as he was about the Polish climate. Off the cuff, I wondered to myself which Jesuit they used as a consultant. In the credits, there was Father James Martin, SJ! (Another Jesuit, Bill Cain, wrote the mercifully short-lived ABC-TV series Nothing Sacred.)
So in some ways, Have No Fear
was John Paul II as The New York Times
wanted him to be: personally friendly, but a traditionalist who was tragically out of step with the glories of modernity and What People Really Need to Hear From The Church.
The one golden element in the movie was the decision to cast German actor Thomas Kretschmann in the title role. You saw him in The Pianist
and you'll see him in the upcoming King Kong
. If his physicality was a tad on the GQ side, there were moments when he nailed the essence
of John Paul II especiallly as a young priest -- not merely as a resemblance but as a quality, a similitude of being. Playing such a towering figure from his early 20s to his early 80s -- an impressive performance given the truncated script.
Next up, the Jon Voight version that airs on Sunday. Looks interesting. Pope Benedict XVI gave it a papal thumbs up after a screening in Rome last week, which tells you something.