From The News:
The film was premiered in a theatre that rests in the shadow of the Basilica, deep in the heart of the Vatican. Alongside the Pontiff, the audience was made up of bishops and cardinals, Solidarity legend Lech Walesa, former First Lady Jolanta Kwasniewska, Polish politician Julia Pitera – who is the wife of the movie’s director Pawel – Poland’s greatest ever footballer Zbigniew Boniak, and many more.
Based on the best selling memoir by John Paul II’s aid Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz (pictured above), the film version adds new facts never before revealed, the most surprising of which is that the Polish pope not only survived one assassination attempt, but two.
During the film’s most successful section – covering the Pope’s role in rise of the Solidarity movement and the attempt on his life by a Turkish gunmen in 1981 - Testimony reveals, via a mixture of re-enactment and real-life footage, how an apparently mentally disturbed Portuguese priest stabbed JP II when he was on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, exactly one year on from the first assassination attempt.
The story unfolds via direct-to-camera scenes told by Cardinal Dziwisz himself, plus a commentary by British actor Michael York. We see the Portuguese priest being led away after stabbing the Polish pope. Dziwisz said that it was only later on that they discovered that John Paul II had been wounded. “There was blood,” he says.
The contents of the film had been kept a closely guarded secret – only 15 Vatican experts were shown an advanced copy – until the day before the premiere, when a source leaked the attempted stabbing to Reuters’ Vatican correspondent.
Another scene that raised a few eyebrows at the premiere was when, through re-enactment, we learn that John Paul II took part in exorcism rituals within the Vatican. We see one woman writhing on the floor, believed to be possessed. John Paul II reads a prayer quietly, but to no affect. It was only when he gets up to leave and tells the woman that he will pray for her in the morning does she finally calm herself and becomes still.
The film’s strength is in the extensive archival footage, much of which the viewer will see for the first time, such as when, on one of his many pilgrimages, we see African children singing Sto Lat - the Polish equivalent of Happy Birthday to John Paul II; or when he joins in, almost Karaoke-style, with a bunch of Japanese pilgrims as they sing him one of his favourite Polish songs.
The film moves, inevitably, to the sad and moving conclusion of the pontiff’s long illness and death. Cardinal Dziwisz, who was by the side of Karol Wojtyla for 39 years, tells us that the hardest thing for him to do ever was to finally cover the face of his beloved pope as he lay in state before his funeral in 2005. Not a dry eye was left in the theatre.
After the film ended Pope Benedict XVI gave a short speech in which he slightly changed the text prepared for him, to emphasise how moved he was by it. “This emotional story adds to the now many presentations of his pontificate, and tells the story of the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the new millennium,” he said. The Pope also said that this film was not only for Catholics but for everyone.
Cardinal Dziwisz’s original book sold one million copies in Poland, so an audience is ready-made and waiting. But outside of John Paul II’s homeland its success is less certain.
I asked the producer of the film, Przemyslaw Hauser, if he was confident of recouping the significant investment he had made in the film’s production, distribution and marketing.
“I am absolutely certain it will be a success in Poland. That’s natural. Also Italy and South and North America. And probably we are expecting success among audiences in Japan,”
But is it easy to make money from a subject such as this?
“From the logical point of view it’s impossible [to make money in the rest of the world outside Poland]. But if you use modern marketing and distribution techniques, if you spend a lot of money on the production – like we have on this film – if you have stars like Cardinal Dziwisz, Michael York and have the music composed by Vangelis, then how can you fail? It has to be a success.”
But is it?
The film is sure to be a success in Poland. Testimony, which goes on general release today, will be distributed in 180 prints, the same number as a Hollywood blockbuster would be. It is a production of Agora publishers, with backing Poland’s oil giant PKN Orlen and national insurer PZU.