“The Two Popes” - Fernando Meirelles (2019)

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama about the two most recent Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  The story mostly consists of fabricated conversations that could have taken place between these two figures, based on what is known about them, during 2005-2013, when Benedict XVI served as head of the Church and the man later to become Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Now you might think that a film that is mostly a presentation of “talking heads” – and one confined in this case to just two very old men, at that – would be boring to watch.  But The Two Popes turns out to be a fascinating and enlightening viewing experience [1,2,3,4], and one that held my interest all the way along .

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (known for City of God (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005)), the film was written by Anthony McCarten (his script is based on his 2017 play The Pope); and it features nuanced acting performances on the part of its two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.  The latter three figures have each been nominated, in connection with this film, for Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA Film awards in their respective categories – Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten), Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins). 

Although the film is generally carefully made and edited, there is one detriment to the production that reduces one’s viewing enjoyment – the cinematography of César Charlone.  Throughout the film there are noticeably shaky hand-held camera shots of closeups during conversations, which should be held static.  This is a major problem, because much of the film consists of conversational closeups, where the viewer must focus on subtle facial expressions expressing emotional nuances of the speaker and attentive listener.  In addition on many of these shots, the camera framing is poor and distracting.  And in other circumstances, outside of the conversations, there are often unmotivated, wildly swerving camera pans that are also distracting to the viewer.  This sloppy camera work is surprising to me, because César Charlone was also the cinematographer for Meirelles’s City of God and The Constant Gardener, two excellent  films that I don’t recall having had poor cinematography.

Nevertheless, the film has its virtues, and I would say that the truly standout positive element in the film is McCarten’s script.  It manages to artfully articulate and convey, through the extended dialogues between the two main characters, two very different faces and potential directions of the Catholic Church.  Both of these faces have their rationales and significant backing worldwide:
  • Pope Benedict XVI seeks to maintain the Church as a bastion of traditional values.  This is based on the idea that the Church has staunchly upheld these unchanging values throughout the many centuries of turbulent human history and thereby has always served as a constant beacon of hope for the faithful all over the world.
  • Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seeks to fashion a more humane and forgiving Church that more sensitively reaches out with compassion to all the people who may be suffering in the world.  This would mean, for example, relaxing some of the rigid Church restrictions now in force concerning clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and abortion.  Instead of an unchanging Church, Bergoglio wants one that adapts to the world’s changing circumstances so that it can continue to demonstrate how God can always be an active part of today’s world.
So Benedict is the conservative, and Bergoglio is the progressive [5]. The cleverness of the script lies in situating these complex notions in a natural conversational format that not only outlines the thematic differences, but also reveals the basic warmth and humanity of the two characters.  (Since the two of them could both speak Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Church Latin, it was fortunate for me that their language medium of exchange in this film was English.)

Anyway, the story of The Two Popes begins in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II, which meant that the more than one hundred Cardinals around the world had to come to the Vatican in Rome in order to participate in a Papal conclave to elect a new Pope.  Among these Cardinals are the conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the progressive Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce).  After a couple of indecisive ballots, Ratzinger is elected and becomes new Pope Benedict XVI.  Bergoglio finished second in the voting and returns to Argentina.

Then the time shifts forward to 2012.  Cardinal Bergoglio is seeking retirement, but he now finds himself summoned for unknown reasons to the Vatican by Pope Benedict.  The Papacy, the viewer is reminded, has been afflicted in recent years by several scandals, including the Vatican Leaks Scandal [6] and the coverup of reported pedophilia among the clergy.  So we may wonder if Bergoglio’s call to Rome is associated with some of those problems.  Anyway, when he arrives in Rome, Bergoglio is taken to the Pope’s summer residence, where he begins his private conversations with the Pope.

Bergoglio wants to get Pope Benedict’s authorization of his retirement, but Benedict keeps changing the subject and wants only to talk about their theological differences.  And this is where the film gets into its interesting depths.  Benedict asserts his conservative adherence to tradition, while Bergoglio says the Church has not always been static, and he advocates a more accommodating approach.  He reminds Benedict that clerical celibacy was not imposed by the Church before the 12th century, and there was even no mention of angels before the 5th century. 

Finally, after discussing various issues, like Church tolerance of homosexuality and whether Bergoglio has been right in his practice to give holy sacraments to those outside of communion, Benedict emphatically asserts in frustration that “God does not change!”  But Bergoglio softly responds with the warm counter-assertion that God is always moving – and He is always moving towards us.

As the two continue their discussions, they become more affably cordial towards each other, and they talk about pop music and favorite television shows.  Benedict even sits down at the piano and plays some light music for Bergoglio.  And Bergoglio recounts to Benedict about his early days before entering the Church when he had a secular job and was engaged to be married to a girl he loved..  But then one day he heard the “Call” and joined the Jesuits.  For his part, Benedict wonders aloud worriedly that he fears he no longer can hear God’s call within himself.

Then they are taken to the Vatican, and they meet up again alone in the Sistine Chapel.  There Benedict finally reveals to Bergoglio why he summoned him to the Vatican.  He intends to resign from the Papacy, something that hasn’t been done for seven centuries.  And far from accepting Bergoglio’s resignation, he wants him to become the new Pope.

But Bergoglio doesn’t want to accept this promotion, because he feels he has committed grave sins in the past.  He confesses that during the Argentinian Dirty War (1976-83) [7], he made too many concessions to the despotic Argentinian dictators of this time in order to protect the Church.  He regrets not having stood up more for those who were suffering from torture and murder at the hands of the cruel junta regime that was engaged in state terrorism (as many as 30,000 innocent citizens were “disappeared” during this period [7]).  As a result of his relative inaction during that period, Bergoglio was later removed from being head of the Argentinians Jesuits and ordered to serve as an ordinary priest for ten years (1983-93).  So he now feels he is unworthy of being Pope. 

However, Benedict has his own humble confessions to offer in return, and he still insists that Bergoglio is the right man for the Papacy.  In the end the two men, both humbly seeking forgiveness, become closer than ever, and they formally absolve each other in turn of their past sins.  Before he returns to Argentina, Bergoglio even shows Benedict how to do the tango.

We then move forward to 2013, and Bergoglio is shown being formally elected as Pope Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first from outside Europe since the eighth-century .  The finals shots show the two confirmed friends, Benedict and Francis, amicably sitting together on a couch in front of a TV and watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Final between their respective favorite teams, Germany and Argentina.

All films have a narrative structure, and it is this narrative, or narratives, that command our interest.  In The Two Popes there are three intertwined narrative threads – those of Pope Benedict, Cardinal Bergoglio, and the Catholic Church, itself.  The two personages, Benedict and Bergoglio, are both earnest, well-intentioned, and selfless, but my own sympathies are more naturally aligned with the more humane and warm-hearted Bergoglio.  What makes the film compelling is the way it shows how narrative progression on the institutional (Catholic Church) scale can be so crucially affected by subtle exchanges on the human scale (even if the historical authenticity of those portrayed human-scale exchanges are unverified).  These human-scale exchanges, brilliantly portrayed by the two Welshmen, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, are what make The Two Popes a fascinating work.

  1. Philip Kemp, “The Two Popes review: opposites attract in this brilliantly acted tale of papal succession”, Sight & Sound, (4 December 2019).   
  2. Odie Henderson, “The Two Popes”, RogerEbert.com, (27 November 2019).   
  3. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “The Two Popes”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  4. Peter Debruge, “Telluride Film Review: ‘The Two Popes’”, Variety, (2 September 2019).  
  5. Vinson Cunningham, “Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?”, The New Yorker, (9 April 2018).      
  6. “Vatican leaks scandal”, Wikipedia, (12 January 2020).   
  7. “Dirty War”, Wikipedia, (24 January 2020).   

No comments: