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TV Review: Documentary captures spirit of pope; WQED adds local commentary

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tonight, viewers can see the best documentary available on the courageous Polish priest who rose to become Pope John Paul II. WQED will air the award-winning "Witness to Hope: The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II" at 8.

"Witness to Hope:
The Life of
Karol Wojtyla,
Pope John Paul II"

When: 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Producer: Catherine Wyler.


In two hours, it covers not only the forces that shaped him under Nazi and Communist rule in Poland but also his nearly 24 years as pope. The film, produced by Catherine Wyler and written and directed by Judith Dwan Hallet, is based on George Weigel's epic-length biography.

"This is an accurate record of an extraordinary papacy," said the Rev. Jerome Vereb, a Passionist priest from Pittsburgh who has worked on and off at the Vatican since 1977 and is an expert on John Paul's travels. Vereb will provide commentary during pledge breaks.

Biographer Weigel often appears as a talking head. The film has the admiring tone of his book but avoids its polemics.

The film gives detailed attention to the life of Karol Wojtyla before he became pope. This is necessary because there is no way to understand John Paul without understanding the forces that shaped him. But film images of that period are limited. Wyler and Hallet have supplemented them with silent re-enactments of scenes such as young Wojtyla fleeing a Nazi air raid.

The commentators include some of Wojtyla's closest, lifelong friends. But one of the biggest surprises is former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration's liaison to John Paul in an era when the United States had no Vatican embassy. Although one would expect Brzezinski to focus on political matters, he emerges as the film's best analyst of John Paul's spiritual impact on the world.

"Witness to Hope" mercifully refrains from amateur psychoanalysis of the pope. On deeply personal matters, it relies on John Paul's own statements or the testimony of those closest to him.

Vereb will supply details that filmmakers had no time to include.

For instance, footage of John Paul's triumphant 1979 return to communist Poland shows him bareheaded, without the white skull cap of his office. Ordinarily all bishops remove their skull caps in the presence of the pope, Vereb said. John Paul uncovered his own head to signal deep respect for the Polish church and its people.

The film covers the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly killed John Paul, but it does not mention that two women in the audience were equally seriously wounded. Vereb became the Vatican's liaison to those women, one Catholic, the other Protestant. John Paul considered them part of his community of suffering and met with them many times, Vereb said.

"All three of them had a sense that they were putting themselves in the hand of God, believing that good would come out of this. They all had a sense that they were caught up in a mystery that ultimately was the struggle between good and evil. They became a little family," Vereb said.

One of the delights of the film is images of the handsome, athletic John Paul before age and disease enfeebled him. But the neurological symptoms that prevent him from showing facial expression should not be mistaken for feebleness of mind or spirit, Vereb said.

Vereb last met with John Paul a year ago, to give him a copy of "A Pilgrim Pope," a book on John Paul's travels that Vereb wrote with Cardinal Achille Silvestrini. Vereb told John Paul that he had read each of the thousands of speeches he has delivered around the world.

"He took my hand and said, 'You read every talk? You will go to heaven,' " Vereb said. John Paul's expression didn't change because it couldn't, "but his eyes teared up because he was laughing at his own joke."

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