Testimony: The Story of John Paul II

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.”

 Exorcism

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.

“What Happened to the Greek Columns I Ordered?”

Obama jokes, the Al Smith dinner last night, from A Writer’s Diary:

Forget Tina Fey, the true comedians of the presidential campaign are the candidates.

Last night, Barack Obama and John McCain set aside their increasingly bitter arsenal of personal attacks, insinuations and innuendo and warmly chided each other at a charity dinner packed with New York media and political bigshots.

At the Alfred E Smith dinner, named for a pioneering Catholic four-term New York governor, the two senators joked about the themes of their campaign, with plenty of self-deprecation – a scene welcomed by citizens and political professionals alike.

McCain displayed a wit and good-natured humour seldom on display during the brutal election campaign, which must have left his advisers wondering why he does not have the same effect on his supporters as the crowd of political luminaries in New York last night. The Arizona senator was funnier than Obama, and appeared at ease in a room packed with Democrats.

“There are signs of hope even in the most unexpected places, even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me; I’m delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary.”

McCain also riffed on the lingering tension between Obama and the former president Bill Clinton.

“When Larry King asked President Clinton a couple weeks ago what was the delay and why wasn’t he out there on the trail for Barack, Bill said his hands were tied until the end of the Jewish high holidays,” McCain said, referring to the CNN talk show host.

“Now, you’ve got to admire that ecumenical spirit. I just know Bill would like to be out there now, stumping for Barack until the last hour of the last day. Unfortunately, he is constrained by his respect for any voters who might be observing the Zoroastrian new year.”

McCain quipped about his own wealth – in a well-publicised gaffe this summer McCain could not remember how many houses he owned – and referred to Joe the Plumber, his new campaign mascot.

“[Obama] claims that this honest, hardworking small businessman could not possibly have enough income to face a tax increase under the Obama plan,” he said. “What they don’t know is Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses.”

Before relinquishing the microphone to Obama, McCain played on the “expectations game”, in which the campaigns engaged in the run-up to the debates this fall.

“Now, of course, it would be unfair – and even a little unkind – to put my opponent on the spot before he gets up here or to throw him off his game with unreasonably high expectations,” McCain said. “But I do need to warn you, ladies and gentlemen, you all are about to witness the funniest performance in history – Senator Obama, the microphone is all yours.”

Obama, who accepted the ribbing with laughs and broad smiles, poked fun at his own convention acceptance speech, which he delivered before more than 80,000 people at an outdoor football stadium on an elaborately constructed stage.

“I was originally told we’d be able to move this outdoors to Yankee Stadium,” he said of the dinner. Then, pausing and surveying the room, he said: “Could somebody tell me what happened to the Greek columns that I requested?”

He quipped that the Fox News channel, the conservative-leaning cable broadcaster that Democrats say repeats scurrilous rumours about Obama, reported he had fathered two African-American children “in wedlock”.

The two men had kind and respectful words for each other. Obama praised McCain’s service in the Vietnam war, saying few Americans had served their country with “the same honour and distinction” as the Arizona senator, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for more than five years Vietnam.

McCain said Obama was “an impressive fellow in many ways” and praised “his great skill, energy and determination”. He also noted that Obama was positioned to make history as the first African-American president, and said: “I can’t wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well”.

Snooze, You Lose

Evidently the Tampa Bay Rays went to sleep at the same time as I did last night, for when I did they were up 7-0 in the top of the seventh inning. When I awoke about an hour later with the sense that they had blown the game, I turned my radio on to discover that they had indeed blown that seven run lead and had lost the game 8-7. While I was trying to discern how it was that I had intuited this, it finally dawned on me that I had gone to sleep with my radio also on sleep (goes off automatically after an hour) and that I hadn’t intuited anything but had actually woven into my dreams what I was hearing (probably being yelled) on ESPN radio.
One wonders what the overall effect will be of the Rays blowing (or choking?) when victory seemed so sure.

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