- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

“Where is God?” asks a besieged Catholic in Nazi-occupied Poland in the ambitious biographical feature “Karol: A Man Who Became Pope,” which debuts tonight at 8 on the Hallmark Channel.

Karol Wojtyla, a young art student at the University of Krakow who witnesses the same wanton persecution of Jews, clergy and ordinary Poles, responds not with angry speculations about an absent God but by joining the priesthood.

And what a consequential priest he would become. A strapping young man who knew death well — his mother and older brother died when he was a boy — Wojtyla trained in secret as a seminarian during World War II, taught ethics at the University of Lublin, became bishop and then cardinal of Krakow, and finally bishop of Rome.

Paraphrasing Descartes, Wojtyla, the eventual Pope John Paul II, here says man must choose between God and nihilism. The dichotomy may or not be a false one in the broadest philosophical sense, but in Wojtyla’s circumstances it must have seemed real enough.

First came the Nazis, then Poland’s “liberators,” the Soviets — dueling totalitarianisms that in common saw the Church as a central foe, and against which Wojtyla stood as an inspirational symbol of freedom of mind and, for Poles, national independence.

“Karol,” a stately Italian production with an international cast including the very watchable Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk in the title role, was financed by Faith & Values Media and aims for a general audience. All decent people recoil at the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, so the late pontiff’s theology is confined to digestible truisms about love, compassion and human dignity. And there’s something of a love story: If he hadn’t been stirred to the vocation of priesthood, the movie suggests, tastefully, he may have found romantic love with Hania (Malgorzata Bela), a confidante from his days of acting in Krakow’s underground theater.

The movie, directed by Giacomo Battiato and based on the 2002 book “Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II,” splits its four hours equally between Catholic Poland’s struggle against Germany and the Soviet Union. Probably too much time is spent concentrating on a Jewish ghetto. Better movies, such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” have perhaps become too definitive for even the best of cable television to contend with.

The movie’s first half is also somewhat flat because Wojtyla hadn’t yet come into his own, neither as a man nor as a theologian. From the young Wojtyla there is much weeping (over lost loved ones and ill-fated fellow resisters who took up arms against the Nazis) and only traces of action. So taken with books is Wojtyla that he nearly dies in a dynamite explosion while reading in a rock quarry.

“Karol,” to be sure, doesn’t imply that Wojtyla was an absent-minded pacifist. Indeed, Mr. Adamczyk’s Wojtyla approves of armed resistance and says, “Whoever chooses weapons has every right to do so.” But he himself would rather be killed than kill.

As the Stalinist puppet government arrives, though, Wojtyla is primed intellectually and intestinally for what would be a more than 40-year confrontation with Soviet communism, which, in Poland, oppressed the very class — workers — that the socialist revolution was supposed to liberate. Wojtyla is at once icily defiant and Christlike in his ability to forgive, a sensibility that Mr. Adamczyk seems to get exactly right.

The movie ends with Wojtyla’s election to the papacy in 1978. At 58, he was the youngest pope of the 20th century and had much usefulness ahead of him, which is astonishing given the eventful and hectic background covered here.

According to Hallmark, John Paul watched this biopic not long before he died. He is said to have been “impressed.”

Wise critic, the pope.

**1/2

WHAT:“Karol: A Man Who Became Pope”

WHERE: Hallmark Channel

WHEN: Tonight at 8

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