NEW YORK – It doesn't match the impact of "Schindler's List" (search) or "The Pianist" (search) — and what portrayals of the Nazi era reach such Academy Award-winning heights?
But the Hallmark Channel's must-see presentation on Pope John Paul II's (search) life carries a special double whammy all its own. Poland's young pontiff-to-be and his colleagues are liberated from the unspeakable terror of Nazism only to be subjected to the mirthless tyranny of communism.
These twin oppressions are given equal time in the four-hour biopic, "A Man Who Became Pope" (search) (8 p.m. EDT Monday, repeated 9 a.m. Aug. 21).
A showbiz cliche says it's far harder to hold an audience with virtue than with vice, which underscores the achievement of Poland's Piotr Adamczyk, who heads the international cast. He portrays Karol Wojtyla as good-guy son, student, friend to Jews, actor, playwright, poet, forced quarry laborer, secret seminarian, pastor, professor, bishop and finally cardinal of historic Cracow.
Adamczyk is never less than interesting, and sometimes compelling.
Since we're dealing here with not only a priest but a pope, it's understandable that tastefulness replaces TV's customary titillation in the depiction of Wojtyla's relationship with actress Hania, played by the striking Malgorzata Bela. Though many popes have been products of cloistered backgrounds, Wojtyla was a young man of the world, involved in secular university life and underground theater.
Karol undoubtedly had friends who were girls, if not girlfriends, and there's a hint of romance on Wojtyla's part. He kisses her once — but only to fool Nazi soldiers. A bit more than that radiates from Hania. "I've lost you," she moans when he surrenders all to his priestly calling.
"A Man" features legions of extras, handsome locations around Cracow and Vatican City and music that seems inspired by the "Schindler's" score of John Williams. CBS can only pray that its forthcoming John Paul miniseries measures up.
In this portrayal, Wojtyla was peace-loving but no pacifist. When pals fruitlessly take up arms against the Nazi invaders, he says, "Whoever chooses weapons has every right to do so." But he insists that those working to preserve Polish Christianity and culture are fighting the same battle alongside them.
The movie's subtly inspirational message: The worst of death and horror can never vanquish faith, hope, charity and simple human decency. The assurance of a Catholic mentor to Wojtyla turns out to be true: "We will win with love, not guns. The Nazis will disappear. Evil devours itself."
Later, as university students cope with communism, also destined to vanish eventually, Wojtyla advises: "Man is in the middle between God and nothingness and he must choose."
Bishop Wojtyla forgives a youth who spies on him for Poland's atheistic overlords. And as Poland's bishops join in a statement forgiving the Germans, Wojtyla wisely insists that they must also ask the Germans to forgive the Poles' trespasses.
Best bit: the complex interplay between Wojtyla and Warsaw's indomitable Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who had the honor of being arrested by both Hitler's Gestapo and the Polish Stalinists. Wojtyla was twice nearly killed in accidents and jousted with communists for decades, but he never suffered incarceration.
Hallmark publicists say John Paul viewed this dramatization shortly before his death and, according to his spokesman, was "impressed" and "appreciative."
And after a May showing at the Vatican, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (search) praised "this meaningful film," blessed its Italian producers and commented: "How can we not read as a divine plan the fact that on the chair of Peter, a Polish pope is succeeded by a citizen of that country, Germany, where the Nazi regime was the most vicious?"
Hallmark timed the show for the week that Benedict is returning home to Germany. In addition, the first showing falls on the feast of Mary's Assumption, when Roman Catholics are obliged to attend Mass.
The impressive script was by director Giacomo Battiato and Carmelo Pennisi, based on the 2002 book "Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II" (search) by GianFranco Svidercoschi.
John Paul fans will be disappointed that the story ends the night he's elected pope. But be not afraid, as the pope would say: The producers reportedly plan to treat his eventful pontificate in a follow-up film.