ABC's Pope John Paul II biopic is the least engaging among this year's trio of so-so productions about the pontiff -- and not just because it has only two hours to tell the tale, compared with four for CBS' version and Hallmark Channel's acquisition "A Man Who Became Pope."

ABC’s Pope John Paul II biopic is the least engaging among this year’s trio of so-so productions about the pontiff — and not just because it has only two hours to tell the tale, compared with four for CBS’ version and Hallmark Channel’s acquisition “A Man Who Became Pope.” Granted, the smaller time frame makes it more difficult to chronicle an 80-some-odd-year life, but what emerges is a CliffsNotes version that fastidiously avoids crowd shots (presumably to keep costs down) and struggles to create drama with its worshipful tone.

Told in flashback after the pope’s visit to Jerusalem, it’s essentially “Confessions of a Pope,” as he reflects upon episodes from his past. Yet even in a two-hour format, pic gives remarkably short shrift to both the Nazi occupation of Poland — a defining moment in that life — and the subsequent Soviet domination, before squeezing Karol Wojtyla’s ascent to the papacy into the second hour.

Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”) is properly beatific in playing Wojtyla over a 60-year span, but what we get are strictly flash-card glimpses of the man. His mother, for example, gets sick and dies in the first 10 minutes, with the grown Karol participating in theater (going underground because of the Nazis) before deciding to become a priest — a heroic act given the Nazis’ treatment of the clergy — saying, “I don’t know how else to fight.”

All three TV projects are handcuffed to some extent by the fact that Wojtyla was primarily a witness to the various atrocities perpetrated in Poland, meaning he is relegated to watching Jews and others being dragged away by the Germans before they abruptly disappear, and we’re on to the next episode.

As for his tenure as pope, this production (written by Michael Hirst and Judd Parkin) takes a rather perplexing side trip into the story of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Joaquim de Almeida), though it’s notable as one of the few moments in any of these films where the pope’s behavior is open to question.

Beyond Kretschmann, there’s virtually no character development — including Bruno Ganz as Cardinal Wyszynski, head of the Polish church — and the pope himself is rendered somewhat mundane by his utter saintliness, failing to capture the charisma and sparkle that prompted even non-Catholics to respond enthusiastically to his visits.

Production itself (shot in Lithuania and Rome) is handsome enough, but there clearly appears to have been some corner-cutting in the rush to beat CBS’ version on the air — albeit by all of three days, before the pope rises again.

Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II

Movie; ABC, Thurs. Dec. 1, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Lithuania and Rome by Five Mile River Films. Executive producers, Judd Parkin, Lorenzo Minoli; co-executive producers, Thomas Augsberger, Donald S. Reid, Alexander M.S. Vik; producers, Giovanni Lovatelli, Paolo Piria; director, Jeff Bleckner; writers, Michael Hirst, Parkin; story by Hirst, Minoli, Parkin.

Crew

Camera, Roberto Bienvenuti; editor, Benjamin Weissman; music, Carlos Siliotto; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; casting, Jeremy Zimmerman, Andrea Clark, Susan Edelman. 120 MIN.

Cast

Pope John Paul II - Thomas Kretschmann Cardinal Wyszynski - Bruno Ganz Oscar Romero - Joaquim de Almeida Father Dziwisz - John Albasiny Edmund Wojtyla - Paulius Ignatavicius Karol Wojtyla (boy) - Jasper Harris Karol Wojtyla (teenager) - Ignas Survila
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