Having gorged on the papal succession story, here come the inevitable attempts to simultaneously humanize and profit from the outpouring of emotion that greeted Pope John Paul II’s death. CBS and ABC are assembling projects, but Hallmark got there first by acquiring this English-language Italian production, a loaded-with-melodrama exploration of Karol Wojtyla’s life through Poland’s travails under Nazi and Soviet oppression. Aside from Piotr Adamcyzk’s beatific perf and the laid-on-thick score (by Ennio Morricone, no less), only the truly faithful will find much to move them in this sumptuous, earnest but ultimately slight exercise.
Hallmark has made a point of noting Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the film, which proves he is better suited to his present calling than the role of drama critic. This isn’t to say “A Man Who Became Pope” is badly executed, but the dialogue is often stilted and the narrative directed toward other characters due to the constricting, hands-off approach to any shades of gray involving Karol himself.
Nearly the entire first half of the production chronicles Karol as a young student during World War II, a stout lad who literally carries his ailing father on his shoulders once they become refugees. They take up residence in occupied Krakow, where Karol spends part of his time debating the best paths to resistance and discussing man’s capacity for evil with a noble priest (“Under the Tuscan Sun’s” Raoul Bova).
Evil, alas, is there en masse, personified by Nazi governor Hans Frank (Matt Craven, one of the few U.S. actors in this English-language production), whose brutality results in several grueling moments as innocents are gunned down.
Exultation over the war’s eventual end proves short-lived, as it becomes clear the Poles have traded in one oppressor for another. In this case, the evil is embodied by a sneering Soviet operative (Hristo Shopov) who assigns a spy to watch Karol, who steadfastly preaches love in the face of tyranny.
A Polish actor with bright, sensitive eyes, Adamcyzk captures the pope-in-waiting’s advance toward the monastery, but also is saddled with unfortunate exclamations, such as “You left me all alone!” at his father’s graveside. The quality of other perfs proves uneven, including Craven’s accent, which sounds like Col. Klink meets Pontius Pilate in “The Life of Brian.”
The struggle remains how to generate drama, which is done almost invariably through the suffering of Karol’s friends. At the same time, Karol is portrayed as being far more tolerant than the church’s views on contraception, female clergy or homosexuality during his tenure would imply.
Only at the very end, too briefly, does the movie address Karol’s election as pope, and in that one moment — as downtrodden Poles rejoice — a spark of life illuminates the proceedings.
All told, then, this somber, dutiful melodrama at best offers a tentative peek under the late pontiff’s headwear. Even the title underscores the confining notion that Karol ascended beyond his mortal shell, evoking uninvited thoughts about Richard Harris swinging by his chest in “A Man Called Horse.”
For many, simply learning more about such a beloved religious leader will be enough. Yet there’s a lesson here for the less pious that CBS and ABC would do well to consider: While it’s possible to document a man’s existence, it’s not so easy to breathe life into a symbol.