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Posted November 29, 2005

Papal premiere:
Yet another pope movie gets Vatican screening

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- It isn't every day that a pope gets to watch himself in a supporting role in a major movie.

Pope Benedict XVI did, and his character even prompted the biggest applause line at the world premiere screening of "John Paul II" Nov. 17 at the Vatican's audience hall.

The film depicted Pope John Paul, played by Jon Voight, selecting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, portrayed by Polish actor Mikolaj Grabowski, as head of the doctrinal congregation in 1981.

"My mission is to lead the church into the third millennium ... and you will help me do it, my dear friend Cardinal Ratzinger," Pope John Paul says in the movie. The 6,000 people in attendance clapped and cheered.

Pope Benedict, Vatican officials and invited guests saw an abbreviated Italian-language version of the film, which will air on CBS as a two-part miniseries Dec. 4 and 7. It was being shown in Italy in late November.

The movie opens with the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul and focuses heavily on the late pontiff's role in sparking the fall of communism in his native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

Pope John Paul is shown watching with interest as a U.S. envoy shows him satellite photos of Warsaw Pact troops; later, he tells Poland's outlawed Solidarity movement not to give up the fight for freedom. Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev is saying of the pope: "This man must be stopped."

Much of the film goes by like a video version of John Paul's greatest hits, and the scenes and lines are already familiar to anyone who followed his pontificate. The movie, which had Vatican consultation and cooperation, is so accurate that one could almost say Pope John Paul wrote the screenplay.

The most poignant scene comes at the end, when the frail and frustrated pope makes his final appearance at his apartment window and, despite his great efforts, cannot speak to the crowd.

Reliving these and other chapters of the pope's final days was both moving and a bit surreal for many in the movie crowd, who had gone through the real thing only eight months earlier.

"It has a strong impact, especially for those of us who experienced these events," said Cardinal Jozef Tomko, a close friend of the late pope. Cardinal Tomko said he thought the film was well-done.

Other Vatican opinion was mixed.

"Too political," said Archbishop Piero Marini, who organized the pope's liturgical events in Rome and around the world. He and others thought the depth of Pope John Paul's talents as a pastor were given short shrift.

The CBS version is one of three biopics this year on Pope John Paul, and they all faced the same challenge: how to compress an eventful life of 85 years and a historic pontificate of 26 years into a film of a few hours. The answer is to skip whole decades and hit the highlights.

Those who knew the pope best and worked with him might be expected to be the biggest critics of such movies. But the Vatican has generally cooperated with the filmmakers and even gave CBS permission to shoot some scenes on Vatican territory.

Pope Benedict, who sat in a place of honor and in the most comfortable seat in the audience hall, gave the movie two thumbs up afterward -- though he had written his speech before the viewing. He said the movie honored the late pope's memory and stimulated reflection about the meaning of his papacy. Pope Benedict also tried to explain why these films are striking a chord with audiences.

"It's the latest confirmation of the love people have for Pope Wojtyla and of their great desire to remember him, to see him again and to feel him close," he said.

The devotion to Pope John Paul is also evident in the massive crowds of pilgrims lined up to visit his tomb beneath St. Peter's Basilica -- something Pope Benedict said he notices every day.

In mid-November, the pope may have also noticed film crews working below his apartment window for yet another movie version of his predecessor's life. Once again, the scene was the papal shooting, and the actor playing the pope stood around between takes with blood on his white cassock.

That film, titled "Karol: The Pope Who Remained a Man," is the second part of an Italian-made series and is expected to come out next April. The first part, "Karol: A Man Who Became Pope," was shown on the Hallmark Channel in August and was viewed by Pope Benedict at the Vatican earlier this year.

Following the latest movie screening, the pope spent several minutes greeting Voight and several of the other actors who flew to Rome for the premiere. After a film that showed scene after scene of crowds cheering for Pope John Paul, the silence in the audience hall was a bit strange.

Then someone yelled "Viva il papa!" and others quickly picked it up. The cry seemed directed at two popes, one seated in their midst and one still in their hearts.