On Saturday night, I attended the second showing of the North American premiere of the Polish film Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us. The film courageously attempts to capture the life, character, and brutal murder of the Servant of God, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, popularly known in Poland as the “solidarity priest.”
For those who don’t know him, Father Jerzy Popieluszko was born into a devout Catholic family in eastern Poland in 1947. Despite the political atmosphere, he decided to study for the priesthood. After two mandatory years of military service, he was ordained and served in several parishes, finally being assigned to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the city of Warsaw. In 1980, Solidarity was born, and Popieluszko was asked to celebrate Mass for the striking workers. He became their chaplain and their champion. On December 31, 1981, the government imposed martial law and started persecuting the leaders of Solidarity. Father Jerzy was tireless in assisting the workers and their families. He also became famous for his widely attended monthly Mass for workers, where he preached about human dignity and the possibility of peaceful change. After several years of intimidation by the government (including arrest, imprisonment, and death-threats), Father Jerzy was brutally murdered by the Polish secret police on October 19, 1984. Here’s a link to a one-page biography: http://saltandlighttv.org/blog/?p=7563
The film, Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us, is not always easy to watch–but for those with a little patience, it is compelling and rewarding, because of its artistry, its attempt to “bear witness” to the life of Father Jerzy in a respectful and honest way, and the hope it offers to all who have known oppression.
Biopics, when well-done, are probably my favorite genre. But many are so poorly done that they seem to fall into another, separate genre altogether. It is extraordinarily difficult to weave the many strands of a person’s life into one compelling portrait that is also a cohesive story with unity and thematic depth. Poor biopics seem to use the fact that it’s a “true story” as an excuse to avoid this difficult work. Which means good, solid biopics are to be appreciated all the more.
Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us achieves this. While the film may not be a “great” film, it compellingly covers the major events of the Father Popieluszko’s life, and gives us glimpses of other, less important events which, nonetheless, give us insight into his character. Actor Adam Woronowicz actually seems to become Popieluszko onscreen, imitating his very gestures. The film is slow in places, even grueling–because during its 2 1/2 hours, we witness an oppressive government’s efforts to crush the soul of the Polish people. But writer/director Rafal Wieczynski skillfully directs the acting and pacing, so that it builds to a powerful end where we not only accompany Fr. Jerzy in his martyrdom for truth, but also begin to grasp the powerful impact this humble man has had, and may continue to have, on so many.
One aspect of artistry which stands out is the filmmakers depth of research and commitment to accuracy.
The film seems to capture well the tension of those times where it was dangerous to say the rosary with too much devotion, never mind express a political opinion. One interesting facet of the film is the director’s choice to occasionally cut in real historical footage, which, rather than distracting, heightens our awareness that this is a true story.
I know of no other feature film where a cardinal acts as himself onscreen, and yet this is exactly what Cardinal Glemp does. (And the first scene is not so complimentary.) This gives a unique “texture” of authenticity to the scenes where Father Jerzy interacts more directly with his superiors–a texture which otherwise might be hard to believe: that someone so actively and intensely devoted to the spiritual care and the human dignity of his people could combine that with a humility about his own opinions and a real trust in the obedience he has vowed, in the persons of superiors who did not always agree with him.
Another distinction that the film makes is that, while the government called his preaching “political,” Father Jerzy was basing his preaching on the social teaching of the Church. From what I have read, the film actually underplays the intimidation and threats from the government that Father Jerzy suffered in the last years of his life. As the film progresses, we see his awareness and preparedness for giving his life grow dramatically.
How can a story that ends in a brutal murder be uplifting? Despite my tears and the turbulence I felt at the end of the film, I have been uplifted and inspired since Saturday night. The beautiful strength of the film lies in its gradual revelation of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, tracing his spiritual journey of transformation from an ordinary, devoted priest with attitude, into a pastor who grows always more Christlike and, in the end, willingly lays down his life to defend the rights of the people he serves. Father Jerzy Popieluszko’s cause for canonization was introduced in 1997. October 19th, 2009, was the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom.
Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us is a powerful and insightful film, well worth viewing. It is not being carried nationwide, but can be seen locally at the Empire Theatre at Square One in Mississauga in the upcoming week. I have not yet seen a rating for the film, but due to its violence, the film can be quite disturbing and is not suitable for young children. Made in Poland, the film is in Polish with English subtitles.