Dueling Network Popes

New biopics on ABC and CBS--broadcast the same week--portray the life of Pope John Paul II.

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The ABC film's scale is noticeably smaller: one Swiss Guard at a Vatican doorway instead of a double row of them in the CBS series, and a handful of cardinals at the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul pope in contrast to CBS's entire roomful of red-garbed prelates in scenes of stunningly simulated authenticity actually shot inside the Sistine Chapel, where papal elections are held.

Despite such details--or maybe because of them--the ABC film, obliged to build its story via close-ups and intimate scenes, manages to capture John Paul's inner life far more effectively, at least in the film's grim first half, in which the young Karol (played as a boy by Jasper Harris and a teenager by Ignaz Survila, before Kretschmann takes over) endures the deaths of his mother, his beloved older brother, and his father. He also lives through the brutal occupation of his country by the Germans in 1939. Under Jeff Bleckner's able direction, we see Wojtyla's character forged in the crucible of loss, sorrow, and faith, as he toils as a laborer after his university is closed, joins a clandestine theater group, and watches helplessly while friends--Jews and resistance fighters--are snatched by the Nazis. Asking himself "Why did God spare my life?," he enters an underground seminary in Krakow to engage in forbidden study for the priesthood.

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