Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Karol: A man who became Pope (2005) DVD

This Italian-Polish-French-German-Canadian production covers events in the life of the late Karol Wojtyla between the German occupation of Poland in 1939 to his election to head the Catholic Church in 1978 as Pope John Paul II. There are three things you need to keep in mind while watching this: Karol is a fictional biography of the Pope, which means several characters and relationships have been invented in order to make the film feel more like a narrative drama than a dry documentary. That being said, the film is faithful to what we know about the early life of the Pope and at no point does the film invent details about the Pope himself.

Director Giacomo Battiato’s approach is to provide audiences an understanding of the historical conditions that created the world leader and shaped his unique outlook and philosophy. Originally shown as a two-part feature on Italian television before it premiered in Polish cinemas, the first half tells of the Polish experience of occupation by Nazi forces, their brutal suppression of the Polish citizenry and extermination of Krakow’s Jewish people, and the organised resistance which young Wojtyla (Piotr Wojtlya) finds himself embroiled in.

While Karol does not directly experience the worst tragedies that befall his countrymen, the film, through a host of invented characters and relationships, show how several role models influence Karol to choose a non-violent path of resistance, first as an actor in a patriotic underground nationalist theatre group, then as a priest.

The only weak point in this portion is what I call the ‘Allo ‘Allo effect: if the Germans, Poles and Jewish characters all speak in English, why are all of them speaking in multiple and varying accents, with the Nazi soldiers and their leader Hans Frank (Matt Craven) getting the most stereotypical and hammy voices since Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant. There is also some whitewashing of history here: many Jews were persecuted and delivered to the Nazis by their generally anti-Semitic Polish countrymen, but watching Karol, you wouldn’t even know that such a thing happened.

The second part of Karol deals with life with Poland under the repressive Soviet police state, Kojtyla’s promotion to Bishop of Ombri and philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Lubin, and his decade-long dealings with Communist Party bosses who would like to see Roman Catholicism stamped out of the country.

While this portion offers the more engaging drama (in the form of pervasive spies and informers), I find few gaping holes in the telling. The pacifist resistance of young Bishop Kojtyla and his preaching of love as the only answer to violence, oppression and evil transforms without warning or explanation to a more rigorous (while still non-violent) condemnation of the brutal Party bosses. We do not know why the Bishop changed the focus of his sermons from the correct form of resistance for Polish Catholics to outright confrontation and condemnation of the authorities. This is a minor failure of the biographical film.

What I like about Karol, though, is a glimpse at the philosophical foundations of Kojtyla’s beliefs. The director suggests that later theology of the Pope may have been influenced by Kojtyla’s doctoral thesis Love and Responsibility, of which several passages are quoted throughout the movie, at appropriate scenes. He was an unassuming and unaffected athlete, writer, playwright, and one of the most rigorous thinkers in post-war Poland. For those of us who remember Karol Kojtyla as an old man, one of the longest-serving pontiffs, or as an ultraconservative, this film reminds us of the humanity and ordinariness of the man who became Pope.

Notes: The sequel, titled Karol: A pope who remained a man, will air on Italian television on Canale 5, on 10 and 11 May 2006

First published at incinemas on 17 April 2006

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