Films on John Paul II to hit major networks this season

.- Two major American networks had the same idea at about the same time—both decided to produce a film about the life of Pope John Paul II. But, as Alan Riding of the New York Times reports, ABC and CBS are coming at the story in different ways.

Both films will tell the story largely as a flashback: ABC opens with John Paul praying at the Western Wall during a visit to Jerusalem in 2000; CBS looks backward and forward from the attempt on his life in 1981.

ABC's "Have No Fear: The Life of John Paul II" will run two hours. ABC recently completed shooting, and CBS is working through mid-October

A young-looking 42-year-old, the British actor Cary Elwes, plays Karol Wojtyla until his election as pope. Voight covers the 26-year papacy. Christopher Lee appears as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Poland's hard-line anti-Communist patriarch, and Ben Gazzara is Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican's longtime secretary of state.

The ABC film, directed by Jeff Bleckner, has Thomas Kretschmann, 42, a Los Angeles-based East German native, playing Karol Wojtyla from his student days at the age of 19 to his death at 84, a transformation that in later scenes required makeup sessions lasting four hours. In this film, Bruno Ganz is Cardinal Wyszynski, while Joaquim de Almeida portrays El Salvador's slain archbishop, Óscar Arnulfo Romero.

"Ours does not avoid controversy," said Lorenzo Minoli, one of the executive producers of ABC's "Have No Fear." "We show the pope's confrontation with Romero over liberation theology. We deal with the sex scandals in the American church. We depict his youthful friendship with several young women and even show an innocent kiss while he is acting in a play. We show 'the human man' behind the pope."

And he added: "We are not making an Opus Dei movie. Others are."

CBS's mini-series version, with Jon Voight, has the working title of "Pope John Paul II" and will run four hours over two evenings.

Inevitably, the road for both productions led to Rome. And before Rome, while ABC did much of its filming in Vilnius, Lithuania, CBS covered a good part of John Paul's pre-Vatican life in Krakow, where he was archbishop before becoming pope in 1978.

Opus Dei is deeply involved in the CBS film. It is being co-produced by Lux Vide, a company based in Rome and led by Ettore Bernabei and his son Luca, members of Opus Dei who have close ties to the Vatican, which vetted their original script. The movie's consultant, Alberto Michelini, is also an Opus Dei member; his son, Jan, the director of the movie's second unit, was baptized by John Paul.

John Kent Harrison, the movie's director, said the script he received from Lux Vide was based on faith, not politics. "Opus Dei objected to having politics, but we came to an understanding," he explained. He also said there was no mention of the sexual abuse scandal in that script, "but I put in a scene."

The Opus Dei connection has given CBS privileged access. For instance, Karol Wojtyla's installation as archbishop was filmed in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, where it actually took place in 1964. The filming was witnessed by the present archbishop, Stanislaw Dziwisz, who for 40 years was John Paul's secretary and closest friend. CBS was even allowed to collect digital images inside the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel.

Both networks plan to broadcast their made-for-television movies this season, though no dates have been confirmed.

The whole shooting reminded vivid memories of the real John Paul II in Krakow, as "In Krakow, we had 500 extras for the pope's arrival in Warsaw in 1979," he said. "As Jon approached the crowd, you could see the hope on their faces, weeping, holding out babies, reaching for him, all sorts of emotions playing out. It all seemed very real."

Mr. Voight was reared as a Catholic and graduated from Catholic University in Washington. "It is a privilege and an honor to play this role, but it is also very daunting," he said between scenes. "It shows him as a moral force, his energy and spirit," Mr. Voight said. "I think it will be a film moving to many people."

Producers have no doubt there will be a lot of interest in the public to watch both productions on the late pope. Even though there has been already wide coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul and the election of his successor Pope Benedict XVI.

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