A little dry like most documentaries, but still a story worth telling.
Look, I’ll be honest, the Lenten period we just passed through was kind of a rough one for me and my family. I’ll spare you all the gory details, suffice to say we got the full-on desert experience this time around. Now, I realize that throughout the history of Christianity, the desert imagery associated with Lent has had positive connotations as well as negative ones, but right now we’re still reeling from all the blows we took over those 40 days, so it’s hard to see the ultimate good in it just yet. The circumstances of life just kicked our butts… hard.
What in the world does any of that have to do with movies, you might be asking? Well, because there are times as a movie reviewer when you have to admit that you’re simply not in the right frame of mind to give certain films a fair shot. So when I looked at the two new big releases coming out this week, The Quiet Ones and The Other Woman, I knew it was one of those times. After the mental beating I took during Lent, especially the week before Easter, there was just no way I could sit through another drab looking horror effort or a sleazed-up version of The First Wives Club and possibly give either film an objective review. See, I couldn’t even be nice to them in that sentence. So, rather than take out my frustrations on those movies, I decided to pass on what the big studios were offering this week and look around for a small, uplifting film instead.
Fortunately, I just so happened to have recently received a screener of Messenger of the Truth, so I didn’t have to search for too long. Based on the book The Priest and The Policeman, Messenger of the Truth is a prize winning documentary which explores the rise to prominence and eventual assassination of Poland’s Father Jerzy Popieluszko during the early 1980s. I know, I know, a story detailing the brutal murder of a priest doesn’t sound like it would be the feel good pick-me-up I was looking for, but bear with me, we’ll get there.
Now, to my shame, I have to confess I knew little of Father Jerzy going into this film. Back in August 1980 while Poland’s Solidarity movement was being formed, I had only been a member of the Catholic Church for about a year and was busy getting ready to enter high school, so I can’t say I was paying too much attention to anything happening outside the confines of my own little world. But as Messenger of The Truth makes abundantly clear in its first few minutes, there was a heck of a lot going on at that time, especially over in communist controlled Poland. Considering how important it is to the story being told, the documentary spends surprisingly little time detailing the rise of the Marxist State in Poland after World War II, taking for granted that the viewer understands how that was not exactly a good thing. Still, if you don’t come to the film with an encyclopedic knowledge of the state of politics in Poland during the latter half of the 20th century, don’t worry, the events chronicled in Messenger of the Truth will be more than enough to convince you who the bad guys were.
As was often (and still is) the case in communist ruled countries, one of the chief antagonists of the government in Poland at that time was the Catholic Church. Beginning as far back as 1949, when the Vatican confirmed the excommunication of Catholic members of The Polish People’s Republic, the Church had routinely criticized the communist leadership. In retaliation, the powers that be constantly tried to stir up anti-clerical sentiment through the use of State run media, not an easy task in a country that was 95% Catholic. For decades though, everything seemed to be in a stalemate, with the government controlling the goods and services and the Church holding on to the hearts of the people. But everything changed in 1978 with the election of Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. Pope John Paul II was a game changer for the country, and his return visit to his homeland in 1979 ignited a spark that would eventually grow into the Solidarity movement. As one interviewee in Messenger of the Truth put it, those few days JPII spent in Poland provided the country with its first week without communism since 1945. The Poles had gotten a taste of freedom and wanted more.