Friday, July 16, 2010

‘He changed history through prayer’

Paolo Gambi meets Alberto Michelini, a distinguished Italian politician who has made an intensely moving film about Pope John Paul II

Alberto Michelini has been a member of both the Italian parliament and the European Parliament for about 20 years, and a distinguished journalist for many decades. He is also the creator of a documentary called Credo about John Paul II. The film is not the first time he has engaged with the Polish pope. He has in fact already made 20 films and written ten books about him. I sat down to interview him in Rome.

Is this your last film about Pope John Paul II?

I consider this to be my last and most definitive film about John Paul II. Obviously 20 films and 10 books are not enough to describe John Paul II's figure, so it was worth running over John Paul II's life again.

This time, I needed to do it through signs. The fewer words I used, the better it would be.

I already chose not to add a commentary to the Tor Vergata youth meeting [World Youth Day 2000] film. But this time I wanted to make a sort of outline, with images accompanied by sacred arias performed by Andrea Bocelli. I tried to put together music and images referring to the issues of John Paul II's pontificate. One might ask: how could we choose the right arias? For some arias it was remarkably easy. Take the three Ave Marias by Gounod, Schubert and Mascagni for Pope's Marian devotion: he was a Marian pope par excellence, even in his coat of arms, and in his extraordinary life story. He was in fact the pope who suffered an attempt on his life and was saved through the help of Mary. He was the pope who answered Fatima's message by consecrating the world to Mary's Immaculate Heart in 1984, as she had asked.

Why did you call the film Credo?

It may seem obvious, but I called it Credo simply because the pope's faith was so strong. Credo, because through him you understand what being faithful means. One of the sacred arias is called "I believe": this is what came to mind when you saw him praying. John Paul II's way was to lavish love on everybody he met. He was extraordinary. I love Pope Ratzinger, but in the Church's history there has never been and won't be any pope gifted with such charisma. He was a pope who changed history through his prayer, through his being a contemplative, because he drew strength for action from his prayer. Whatever he did, it was enlightened by prayer. Everybody knows he often worked in the chapel.

How did the idea of this film come to you?

The producer Caterina Caselli called me while she was watching the endless procession of the pope's funeral, proposing the idea of putting those images together with Andrea Bocelli's arias. As a matter of fact, the sequence of the film follows the sequence of the pope's funeral procession: the body is carried down from the third lodge, the royal stair, inside the Basilica, then three days pass and then the funeral. This is the movie.

But it could not be just this. This is the background. Besides these images I put images of the pope's life, divided into topics: peace, war, ecumenism, women... my only regret is that I had to discard many wonderful images. But I had one hour, and half of it had to be images of the dead pope.

You spoke about signs. Why did you choose to use signs to tell the pope's story?

He was a man who used signs, as when he put a letter in the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He was asking forgiveness for the Catholic Church by performing the most Jewish sign that exists. Or when he went to jail to forgive his would-be assassin Ali Agca.

Between one sacred aria and the next the pope speaks. And he is the only one who speaks, in different situations and languages. He was the one to be listened to. I hope I have succeeded in this aim.

You were close to John Paul II, and know a great deal about his pontificate. What was your most outstanding impression of him?

Many things. First, his vigour in his first years as pope. And we can notice that in those 30-year-old images, like his historic speech at his enthronement, when he said: "Open, open wide the doors to Christ! He alone has words of life." And he added: "Yes, of eternal life!"

And this struck me because in the following years I saw him sick. He had such strength... it's as if those words recovered their freshness and their deepest meaning. As a matter of fact the journalist Andr� Frossard, who did the first book-length interview with John Paul II, said that it was if those words gained their real meaning. "May Jesus Christ be praised" was no longer a trite ritual formula and got its real meaning back. Frossard said the difference was like when the word "land" is pronounced by a land registry clerk or by a man on the top of a caravel.

Listening to the word "Christ", or "you have the words of eternal life", or whatever else he said, it was as if Christianity were rising from Nero's stadium. The impression this pope gave was like that of the early Christians. It was as if he had just left the net on the Sea of Galilee's shore and arrived in Rome. This pope suddenly made the recovery of Christian identity seem possible. And this happened from his very first encyclical to his 2001 Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he wrote that we will be saved not by a formula, but by a person: Jesus Christ.

From there also comes the idea, recognised by everybody in the world - even by non-believers or members of other religions - that he was the most authoritative defender of human rights. What amazed observers, every one of us, was that a Roman Pontiff became a figure of highest moral authority, a defender of human rights.

Then I was struck by his way of praying. He prayed as if he was in another dimension, and it did not matter if he was in his private chapel - where, by the way, I often went - or facing two million people. He was present, but projected a mystical dimension of prayer. He was a great mystic, a contemplative. Then I want to mention his love for men, for women and children, for poor and sick people. And one more word I want to mention is indignation: which we saw against the Mafia (to whom he said: "Convert, once God's judgment will come!") or when he went to Poland in 1999, or when he warned the priest who became a minister in Latin America, or his criticism of the massacres in the former Yugoslavia.

Two more words for him: truth and courage. He reminds me of the early Christians, saints, prophets and patriarchs. The French Cardinal Paul Poupard once said that the pope had the chin of a commander and the forehead of an intellectual. And it was true.

Credo has already been shown in several cities around the world. Are people appreciating it?

I saw people crying. Even Sir Rocco Forte has been touched in London. In March it will be shown in Guatemala City, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. It is an instrument for evangelisation. When in 1992 to 1993 I made 10 films about John Paul II, someone from Aid to the Church in Need watched them, and wanted to translate them into the languages of the former Communist countries. I gave them away for free, and it has been wonderful. For the Church, films can be a form of evangelisation.

Credo is currently available from The Catholic Herald will be promoting the DVD in the run-up to Easter