Opening 4 Aug 2005
Writing credits: Fabrizio Bettelli, Simona Izzo, Marco Roncalli, Ricky Tognazzi
Principal actors: Bob Hoskins, Carlo Cecchi, Roberto Citran, Fabrizio Vidale, Sergio Bini Bustric
John XXIII, born 1881 as Angelo Giusepe Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, Italy, became Pope of the Catholic Church in 1958 upon the death of Pius XII. The film begins with Pope John’s imminent death in 1963 and in flashbacks traces his life from childhood to the seminary to posts in Bergamo (near his home), Athens, Paris, Venice, and finally the Vatican. In order to make the case that this Pope was special, we watch him talk to laborers on strike and, with the aid of German ambassador Franz von Patten, he saves 600 Jewish children on a Romanian boat bound for Auschwitz. As Pope, he visits prisons, telling one prisoner, “I am your shepherd and will always be there,” as well as children’s hospitals. He convened a Vatican Council, the first in almost one hundred years; churchmen streamed into Rome. There is no doubt that he encouraged the celebration of Mass in local languages, in spite of resisting cardinals who preferred Latin. He sought communication with communists and was Man of the Year in Time Magazine. But do you really believe that his letters and prayers were instrumental in bringing about a peaceful settlement between the USA and Russia during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis?
Woven into this docu-drama of facts portrayed by actors (Bob Hoskins as John XXIII) is a human interest story of three friends who meet at the seminary in 1904. Besides short, round, and interminably sweet Angelo, there is Mattia, ambitious to the point of denying his friend when it serves his purpose, who becomes Cardinal Mattia Carcano, and Nicola, too “modern” for the priesthood, who is excommunicated. It’s unfortunate for the film that the recently deceased Pope John Paul II is fresh in our memories after a long service of 27 years. Scenes in the film seem very familiar simply because we saw the same ones on television just some weeks ago. Italian director Ricky Tognazzi’s motive for making the film is a mystery: it is too simple, dogmatic and unconvincing. It comes across as church propaganda à la Mel Gibson, preaching to the devout. The only highlight for non-believers is an astonishing fashion show of papal robes. (Becky Tan)