Movie and miniseries chronicle the life of John Paul II

December 01, 2005|By SID SMITH... | SID SMITH...,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Two major networks are about to unveil their competing biographical treatments of Pope John Paul II, arriving as sober-minded preludes to later, lighter holiday fare.

First, there's ABC's TV movie Have No Fear: The Life of John Paul II (8 p.m. tonight), then CBS' two-part miniseries, Pope John Paul II (beginning 9 p.m. Sunday).

The verdict is fairly straightforward. The more star-studded CBS effort (which concludes at 8 p.m. Wednesday) is twice as long and twice as effective.

ABC's Have No Fear is dignified and respectful, and it covers an even wider span of the late pope's life than the CBS venture. But its two-hour length just about renders any depth out of the question. Thanks to commercials, the actual airtime is only 88 minutes.

The movie is more a series of biographical announcements than penetrating drama. The future pope dabbles in the theater. He vies with the Nazis and becomes a priest. He struggles against the Communists. He rises in the church, survives an assassination attempt and engages in major spiritual and political matters of his day. All these important developments fly by too superficially.

As Karol Wojtyla of Poland, and later the pope, Thomas Kretschmann conveys great piety, evocative in scenes capturing the pontiff's abiding humility. But Kretschmann is better at solemnity than charisma, inadequate at conveying those ineffable personal charms that enabled the late pontiff to be so easily and magically at home with millions worldwide. The pope's wit, sincerity and natural ease - aspects admittedly hard to capture and convey - are missing here.

Two actors portray the pope in Pope John Paul II on CBS: Jon Voight in his days at the Vatican and Cary Elwes as Wojtyla in his days in Poland, ages 18 to 50. The Elwes portion, which dominates the first half, after a brief, harrowing depiction of the 1981 assassination attempt, is the more successful and interesting, partly because it's less familiar. Unlike ABC's abbreviated treatment, this version depicts in some detail Wojtyla's struggle against the Nazis and his deepening Jewish friendships, so key to his later historic visit to Israel.

Voight portrays the later pope with subtle, actorly gestures and sensitivity, though his role is more that of a stand-in in a documentary covering such historic episodes as his support of Poland's Solidarity trade union movement and his appeal to worldwide youth. Still, Voight's cagey talents and a generally better script manage to capture at least a bit of the pope's irresistible personality.

Ben Gazzara, Christopher Lee and James Cromwell turn in fine character portrayals as important influences on Wojtyla's religious life.

Sid Smith is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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