I could write a pamphlet, perhaps even a short book, about all the factual errors and distortions in Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles’ film The Two Popes. However, despite the film’s numerous inaccuracies, a couple of which are downright harmful, I found it to be a very moving work of, yes, Catholic cinema.
I am an admirer of both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. Both popes inspire me, albeit in different ways. For me, Benedict is one of the greatest European intellectuals in recent history, and I am grateful for many aspects of his pontificate, which have reinvigorated the Church, such as his embrace of traditionally-minded Anglicans while at the same time respecting their centuries-old traditions, a small but tangible step towards Christian unity; his outstanding theological works, which will be eagerly read in seminaries and theology departments for centuries to come; and the appointment of many dynamically orthodox defenders of the faith as bishops and cardinals.
While I am not enthusiastic about every aspect of Francis’ pontificate (for instance, I believe that the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia makes a schism a disturbingly realistic prospect), I consider him to be a great Christian witness. His concern for the poor, humility, and his renunciation of luxury are a beautiful antidote to the vulgar materialism of Western societies today. The gestures of Francis and his papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski have challenged me to be more sensitive to the needy.
What is more, I believe that there is more continuity between the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis than many believe (I can already anticipate angry comments about the Amazon synod and other matters). For example, Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” comment stunned the world, but it did not mean a changing of Catholic doctrine or practice; Francis signed a document reaffirming the Church’s ban on admitting men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies to seminaries.
It should be ironic that many pro-lifers are hostile to Francis, who blasts abortion arguably more explicitly and uncompromisingly than any other world leader on a regular basis, recently comparing it to Nazi eugenics and contract killing, for example.
Likewise, Francis’ concern about the environment is no ecclesiastical novelty. In his encyclical Laudato si’ dealing with man’s concern for creation, he quotes Pope St. Paul VI once and St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI each four times. After Benedict had announced his abdication, the often anti-Catholic Guardian called him “the first green pontiff” and wrote that “the outgoing pope deserves some credit for his green stance.”
Fernando Meirelles’ film, which consists mostly of imagined conversations between Benedict and Francis, begins with the conclave of 2005. In breaks between the ballots, a frustrated Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and other “liberal” cardinals complain that if Ratzinger is elected pope, true “reform” will never happen.
Next, the film moves to 2012 and Pope Benedict has invited Cardinal Bergoglio to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo and informs him that he refuses to accept his resignation. The two men passionately spar about their respective visions of the Church; Benedict, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who makes no attempt at cloaking his Welsh accent with a German one, is portrayed as an old curmudgeon who scolds Bergoglio for being too compromising. Meanwhile, Benedict’s future successor (Jonathan Pryce, also a Welshman, who indeed bears an uncanny resemblance to Pope Francis) accuses Benedict of being an inept leader of the Church and out of touch with modernity.
At this point, I was pretty sure I would end up hating The Two Popes. I had heard the film described as a “buddy movie,” so I assumed that the next two hours or so would consist of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau-style friendly but endearingly angry banter. However, that was not what followed.
After a stormy discussion in the Castel Gandolfo gardens, Benedict and Bergoglio warm up to each other. Upon returning to Buenos Aires, Bergoglio cheers for Argentina while watching a soccer match in a pub. When he tells one of the patrons that the pope sends his blessings, Bergoglio’s interlocutor calls the bishop of Rome a “Nazi.” “No,” says the archbishop sadly.
Several months later, Benedict XVI invites Bergoglio to the Vatican and tells him of his plans to abdicate. The Argentinean cardinal is as shocked as the whole world was on February 11, 2013 and insists that he not do this. At this point, it is clear that Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio are friends. What follows is the strongest section of the movie.
Bergoglio tells the story of his vocation. He is shown as a twenty-year-old in Buenos Aires with a (fictional) fiancée and working as a chemist in a laboratory. When he tells a co-worker that he is considering the priesthood, she responds that the last thing Argentina needs is another priest. Experiencing an existential crisis, Bergoglio asks God for a sign. He walks into a church and confesses to a priest who lives in a cancer ward, himself ailing. His example inspires the young chemist to join the Society of Jesus.
I have not seen such a beautifully Catholic scene in a mainstream film production in several years. Many young people’s souls are indeed torn between the priesthood or consecrated life and the vocation to the family; on the one hand, they want to serve God, but on the other they fear loneliness. The reaction of the young Bergoglio’s colleague is painfully relevant; both in Buenos Aires in 1956 and around the world today, Catholic priests overwhelmingly do not get a shred of the respect they deserve for their devotion to serving God and man. This scene shows how countercultural – and brave – becoming a priest is.
It is quite clear that, of the two titular pontiffs, the filmmakers have more affinity for Francis. While Benedict is given an unflattering portrayal in the first act of The Two Popes, eventually it is shown that many Catholics felt genuine respect and affection for him. After he finishes his second conversation with Cardinal Bergoglio, crowds of believers flock to him. When Benedict celebrates his final Mass as pope, St. Peter’s Square overflows with teary-eyed Catholics holding placards with “Thank You” in countless languages.
The Two Popes contains quite a few factual errors which reveal that screenwriter Anthony McCarten did not do his research scrupulously; most of these mistakes could be corrected by a quick consultation with any number of good sources. During the 2005 conclave, Benedict XVI was elected after four ballots, not three as in the film. At Castel Gandolfo, Benedict quotes his doctor as saying he is in good shape for an eighty-six-year-old; this scene takes place in 2012, when he was still eighty-five. At the end of the film, Francis, already pope, asks one Swiss Guard to help him connect to wireless internet so he can buy a plane ticket to Lampedusa; Francis has said that he does not know how to use a computer at all, let alone buy plane tickets online.
These, however, are benign mistakes. Far more harmful is the scene in which both Benedict XVI and Bergoglio confess to one another. The future Pope Francis tells of the pangs of conscience that have haunted him for decades because he did not do enough to protest against the brutal military dictatorship of Jorge Videla in Argentina in the 1970s and early 1980s and not protecting two social activist Jesuits under his jurisdiction.
To the screenwriter’s credit, Hopkins’ Benedict XVI does mention Bergoglio’s aid to victims of the junta. However, the impression the uninformed reader could get from watching this lengthy scene is that Pope Francis has bloody skeletons in his closet. Regarding these accusations, it is not insignificant that they were prominently made by Horacio Verbitsky, a hypocritical Argentinean investigative journalist who himself was a snitch for the Videla regime. The future pope’s inspiring aid to victims of political violence in Argentina has been chronicled in Nello Scavo’s book Bergoglio’s List.
After Bergoglio confesses, Benedict XVI asks his future successor for the sacrament of penance. He confesses to having ignored charges against Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Maciel was a truly repulsive, pernicious, and cunning fraud. He founded the Legion of Christ order and Regnum Christi lay movement, both of which attracted many young people to the life of the Church. Yet, at the same time, Maciel led a depraved double life: he sexually abused minors, had numerous love affairs with men and women as well as illegitimate children, was addicted to amphetamines, and was accused of money laundering.
Pope Benedict XVI cannot in any way be accused of being negligent regarding the charges against Maciel. In fact, as Cardinal Ratzinger he launched a canonical investigation against him in 2004. As pope, Benedict ordered a visitation of the Legion of Christ and disciplined Maciel, ordering him to a life of penance in solitude.
I found these suggestions about Francis and especially Benedict XVI to be libelous. However, they are not used in the way one would expect. Both Francis and Benedict express remorse for their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness; if not for the dubious nature of these alleged misdeeds, this would actually be a moving section illustrating the beauty of the sacrament of reconciliation and confessing to God our moral frailty and desire for forgiveness.
Director Meirelles has said that he made the film in order to show that two people of very different views can become friends. I am wary of seeing the Church through the lens of secular political categories like liberalism and conservatism, which have existed for a mere two hundred years, whereas the Church has been around for ten times that number. However, the very message of civil dialogue on political and social topics is a very relevant one. Today, many societies around the world, including the United States, are amidst a fratricidal cold war over politics whose theaters are workplaces, social settings, and even families and whose primary casualties are human relationships. The Two Popes serves in places as a refreshing antidote to this widespread hostility.
At an artistic level, The Two Popes is a fine film; it will probably receive many well-deserved Oscar nominations. There are plenty of beautiful shots of Castel Gandolfo and the Argentinean mountains. The film is largely a two-man show; other actors have episodic roles with a couple lines at best. Both Pryce and Hopkins are brilliant. Once again, Anthony Hopkins proves that he is one of the great thespians of our time. While Hopkins’ masterfully creepy role as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter has eclipsed all his other work, he is actually a versatile actor. In David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (despite Lynch’s loyalty to the scam known as Transcendental Meditation, a surprisingly Christian film), he plays severely deformed Joseph Merrick’s heroically compassionate physician. Hopkins is so convincing in The Two Popes that after a moment the viewer stops caring that he looks nothing like Benedict XVI and sounds more like he came from Cardiff than Munich by way of Marktl.
I did not expect to like The Two Popes. Objectively speaking, there are many reasons why I should protest against it. Yet the film is not a documentary; it is a work of fiction, even if its protagonists are real and living persons. Despite its factual flaws, for many viewers who are among the 6.3 billion non-Catholics in the world, The Two Popes will be a touching film about the positive impact of faith, the power of friendship, and the need for unity, be it in the Church or in our increasingly atomized societies.
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