“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, NKJV). Johnny (2023; streaming on Netflix; thanks to Andrew Greene for the recommendation, and for reading!) is, in outline, a rather typical biopic. It is the story of the Polish priest Jan Kaczkowski (Dawid Ogrodnik), who founds a hospice while dealing with his own terminal brain cancer. He works tirelessly on behalf of the patients, and also writes a memoir, which allows him to tour and speak in various venues (including a Polish Woodstock).
The movie centers around a criminal and drug addict, Patryk (Piotr Trojan), who is assigned to do community service after he is caught stealing. Both Ogrodnik and Trojan are excellent, as they carry what is essentially the story of the priest (who tells Patryk, at one point, to call him “Johnny”), but told from Patryk’s perspective. I thought the photography was both beautiful and appropriate, shifting between fluidly dream-like and objectively observant, depending on the scene. In particular, there’s a brilliant shot when Patryk finds Jan on the floor, as the camera moves between the unconscious priest’s face and Patryk’s yells for help, turning horizontally, while rising and falling vertically.
Johnny might be limited by some biopic conventions: a central character who faces various challenges and setbacks and opposition, but who is ultimately heroic and victorious. Everyone loves him at the end. He helps another character find a measure of redemption, and we find a measure of catharsis in the hopeful outcomes for the people behind the characters. But even though I expect a lot of that, the film is so well-acted that I don’t really care. Perhaps it runs a little long, but it makes several surprising choices in the development of the characters and in the editing that I found refreshing (whether those belong to the real story, or are part of the film’s fictionalization, I don’t know). The dialogue manages to dodge nearly all clichés, though we expect the emotional ones.
Even so, there are several scenes that are moving without being sentimental. While Patryk is sitting by the bed of the young, dying woman, she begins to film a message to her child. The sound fades out and we see Patryk, while holding the phone to record, looks away as if he is a priest hearing a confession. Later, while Józef is dying, the same device is used, so that we watch without hearing. This, I think, is where Patryk sees the embodied truth of Jan’s love for those under his care. Tertullian wrote of the pagans’ response to the Christians, “See how they love one another.” Jan certainly exercises that love for everyone, regardless of their societal status or behavior. Toward the end, there is a song playing with the refrain, “Can I believe you?” The physical and concrete actions of Jan’s love are the proof that people can believe what he is saying.
In the beginning of Patryk’s narration in the film, he says, “When people dig their heels in, even God calls it quits,” unlike Jan, who never quits. But of course, if the love of God was limited by people’s resistance, it would never last more than a few minutes. Jan’s love has to be fueled by God’s love for people, or else it is simply the heroic actions of a single man. From a Christian perspective, the lack of actual Christian content motivating Jan’s action is the one shortcoming. Although I think Johnny is the better film, even Mark Wahlberg’s Father Stu had pieces of actual sermons (however insipid). On the other hand (without knowing if the screenwriter, Maciej Kraszewski, is a Roman Catholic or even a Christian), it might be impossible to get to the heart of Christianity on screen without being too didactic. Perhaps an embodied love toward those who are likely to be ignored or dismissed is the best that film can do to represent a living faith.