The Two Popes is full of serious errors—and several surprises

Despite The Two Popes’ numerous inaccuracies, a couple of which are downright harmful, I found it to be a very moving work of, yes, Catholic cinema.

Anthony Hopkins portrays retired Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce portrays Pope Francis in a scene from the movie "The Two Popes." (CNS photo/Peter Mountain, courtesy NETFLIX)

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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About Filip Mazurczak 48 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

42 Comments

  1. We read from Mazurczak a dismissive tone toward those who see less continuity than he does between Benedict and Francis: “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.”

    Is it possible to speak unofficially and in a morally ambiguous way toward society in general (“who am I to judge?”), while at the same time to later act officially and more narrowly to simply restrict entrance of the most deeply afflicted into seminaries? Is it naive, or not, to think that the latter wording erases the former? And regardless, does the lingering former wording enable exploitation in pastoral practice (if not in doctrine) by well-entrenched functionaries and by mind-benders like James Martin?

    • It’s a netflix movie. It’s free and you can watch it at home.
      It’s sad that people will be scandalized about so little and judge without watching the movie.
      That’s why I’m no longer a Catholic (even though I got my first communion and confirmation from Bergoglio himself).

      • “That’s why I’m no longer a Catholic (even though I got my first communion and confirmation from Bergoglio himself).”

        You’re no longer Catholic because some Catholics annoy you? Huh. People, on a whole, are judgmental and difficult and annoying. Not really a distinctively Catholic problem.

        • I agree with you Carl E. Olson to 100 percent. Any convert or cradle Catholic has only one choice; to stay faithful. In spite of terrible scandals always remember that the Church founded by Christ is always pure and holy.The Church is not just full of evil abusers; look at all the saints! Think of the vast majority of priests who try be good priests. Think of all the good faithful Catholics among the laity. And put Christ where he alone belongs; in the center of your life.Pray! Read good and holy books. And never lose Hope.

          • Agree with Carl and Barbara and implore Ruth to remember that Jesus is Truly Present body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. He’s is awaiting your return.

      • My my, this is a salty thread.

        It’s just a film. It is not presenting itself as canonical truth, and for the overwhelming number of casual (read: non-catholic) viewers, the film is predominantly about how people can change not compromise, even late in life, and that even between two people with seemingly opposing views, friendship and a shared quest for the common good can be found.

        It paints an overwhelmingly positive picture of the Church, of faith, of the call to Christ. And it is being seen by millions who have not set foot in a church in decades.

        How can you say this is a bad thing???

      • But why, people will always be that but as long as you know what you believe in, it’s neva about an individual but Christ who is the head. Smile

  2. “Despite its factual flaws”…from what you describe, it is a film that consistently distorts and twists fact (not merely fictionalizing it) and as a consequence, the truth, itself. A distant second, but still in good company with “The Da Vinci Code.” Sorry, Filip–it’s not worth my $11 or the gasoline to see it. Don’t we have enough problems?

    • This is exactly what came into my mind while reading this informative review. Truly serious, gifted Hollywood actors portraying fictional stories that are portrayed as the “Truth” – such as the totally serious Tom Hanks “DaVinci” character – reinforce the lay under-educated / non-educated to fear or loathe the Catholic Church. I do not mean under-educated as an insult – folks who know almost nothing about the Church or its history, whose little bit of knowledge of it comes from biased media reporting or misrepresenting recent events as “the truth about the church,” take this as gospel. They then receive reinforcement of that truth by attending a ‘serious’ Hollywood movie that ‘spins’ recent poorly reported events targeting the Church. This just reinforces those 6.3 billion non-Catholics who will carry on the anti-Catholic efforts.
      I won’t pay to watch this movie. I will read a good book, and the Good Book.

    • I agree with you Carl E. Olson to 100 percent. Any convert or cradle Catholic has only one choice; to stay faithful. In spite of terrible scandals always remember that the Church founded by Christ is always pure and holy.The Church is not just full of evil abusers; look at all the saints! Think of the vast majority of priests who try be good priests. Think of all the good faithful Catholics among the laity. And put Christ where he alone belongs; in the center of your life.Pray! Read good and holy books. And never lose Hope.

    • Sounds like you haven’t watched it yet, but you should, just for the entertainment, as if you were watching a fun detective story. I’m an English cradle Catholic (quite rare), but the film is not too full of anti-Catholic propaganda, and we will find ourselves open to accusations of being thin-skinned and defensive if we pronounce on a film without seeing it first.

  3. It is a crime that a cold-hearted, self-indulgent and abusive man like Anthony Hopkins would play a role smearing a man of high character like Joseph Ratzinger.

    Hopkins abandoned his little daughter and her mother when his daughter was a tiny child. He has publicly stated that he hasn’t even spoken to his daughter in over 20 years, doesn’t even know where she lives, and has literally stated he doesn’t care about her.

    That a wretched man like Hopkins would make mockery of a gentleman and holy father like Ratzinger is appalling.

    • I really liked Hopkins’ portrayal of CS Lewis in Shadowlands. Sad, that Lewis or Benedict didn’t have a greater influence on him in real life (But who am I too…oh never mind).

  4. After reading an early script on line, I felt the portrayal of Pope Francis was unrealistic in many ways, but the writer seemed to admit as much online comments. The temptation of writing a film on these two different popes is irresistible and there is quite a bit of personal material here to work with. I think it would be helpful if orthodox Catholics approach the film as featuring a relationship between two non-brand prelates with some aspects of reality thrown in. That’s just my idea on how to enjoy this.

  5. After the blasphemous “First Temptation of Christ” any Netflix made films regarding the Catholic Church should be treated with suspicion.

  6. [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.]

    There is no unity without Christ, and Christ is the Truth, the Way, and the Life, and that has implications.

  7. I remember that comment by Pope Francis – “Who am I to judge?”, but I cannot remember the context of it, and I think that in this context – context is all.

    So – can anyone tell me when and where and why he said it?

    • If you use a search engine to search for:

      Pope Francis who am I to judge

      you will find many articles about this famous remark, made extemporaneously by Pope Francis during an interview while he was in an airliner, returning from World Youth Day in Rio, on July 29, 2013.

      The willful misinterpretations and misapplications of this remark show you just how difficult it has become to avoid being mislead by what we read. This might help:

      “Who Am I to Judge?” Revisited, by James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

      Here is a good example of what happens when people try to make too much of such a remark:
      ‘Who am I to judge?’: The pope’s most powerful phrase in 2013

  8. Mazurczak’s good try didn’t succeed in making lemonade out of a lemon, at least according to the punditry available from commentators like myself and at least one review of a notable critic who actually viewed the movie, that it “has less to do with the reality of either man than with the dramatist’s need for conflict and an ideological preference for the narrative of progressive liberation triumphing over hidebound traditionalism,” Deacon Steven Greydanus. It’s not what you say it’s what you do that matters. In today’s Church it’s not what you do it’s what you say that matters, referring to the “Who am I to judge? comment that stunned the world”. Peter Beaulieu had no difficulty identifying the actual contradiction commonly called pontifical ambiguity, “Does the lingering former wording enable exploitation in pastoral practice if not in doctrine”. Two Popes the fakery of Bergoglio aficionado Fernando Mereilles blurs the real drama happening now, the relationship between two Popes one holding the Chair of Peter the other having relinquished it. But not quite. Emeritus Pontiff Benedict remains at the Vatican dressed in pontifical white. Unheard of in Church history. As of late Benedict issues what Fr Spadaro SJ, Bergoglio biographer Austen Ivereigh call “counter narratives”. What have we never before experienced in Church history if not a dual pontifical messaging that of emeritus Benedict clear, concise and antithetical to the dual [ambiguous] messaging of Pope Francis? This not the stuff of movies rather a question of the truth of Christ’s revelation.

      • By all means Dr Bradley. Actually more than a touch. Rather a robust dose of Phariseeism salted with a touch or two of Sadduceeism makes for Aquinas’ virtuous mean between excess and defect. Try it Dr Bradley. I recommend it to all my inveterate Sadducee friends.

  9. I could tell from the trailer that this movie seriously stereotypes BXVI. Everything I’m reading confirms this. Yet one more reason not to subscribe to Netflix.

  10. Irish writer John Waters did a great job eviscerating the film in First Things. Anyone who wants to fall back on the notion that it is still a good film, morally and spiritually uplifting, despite the egregious flaws, factual mistakes, and character assassination of Benedict, is delusional.

  11. I think it was a very bad idea to release a bad movie about the Church at this time. Soooooooooo many people take movies as being absolutely true no matter what the makers of the movie says. Very bad timing!

  12. Thank you for a well written article! I agree with you about the continuity between recent Popes. Your article was valuable because today one notices, even in comments after articles, what seems to be an unchristian attitude, almost rising to the level of rage and hatred.

    • “Unchristian attitude, almost rising to the level of rage and hatred”…

      Enough of this stereotyping and name-calling. Must everything be a hate crime?

      If a lemming looked up and broke stride, would this questioning of regimented “continuity” be an act of hatred toward its neighbors???

  13. We watched the movie this evening and really enjoyed it. I saw the reference to nazi and traitor as both being falsely accused. The movie doesn’t give any time to the accusations, just frames it as both having survived absolute tragedy early in life, both expressing their greatest sin as feeling they hadn’t done enough, both being human, both being more alike than a casual reader realizes when glossing over their opposing views, both being worthy of empathy.

    I feel like some are getting hung up on the Maciel part of the conversation. It’s realistic that there had to have been conversations about sexual predators during this time frame and it had to have had some influence on the choice whether or not to remain actively as pope. Vatileaks was also around this time frame. “It is better for eight innocent men to suffer than for millions to lose their faith.” was referenced in the movie, a statement from a lawyer in Maciel’s defense. Yes, he opened an investigation in 2004 but he had been in a position to review allegations since the early 80s. His predecessor had more influence on the outcome of those cases, but the movie simply leaves it as regret giving the detail 20 seconds of air time. Before becoming pope, he couldn’t have changed the outcome any more than pope francis would have been able to overthrow the Argentinean government.

  14. Many faithful are impressed by the great humility of Pope Benedict. A no show humility. Every single person who has met him are impressed by his humility. He also cared for the poor. He also cared for the marginalised. He was also a very good communicator.In spite of what mainstream media and some in the liberal Church try to tell us. A film that doesn’t highlight the brilliant genius of Benedict, his extensive writing, not his refined manner, not his shyness, not the fact that HE did MORE THAN ANYONE to fight the mainly homosexual abuses, which Pope Francis has praised him for, is definitely not worth paying one single cent for.I take consolation in seeing that many seem to agree. Of course, lukewarm ” Catholics ” will see the film and swallow all if its goal; namely, as many have expressed it, to portray Benedict as the bad Pope and Francis as the good Pope.

    • …thinking the movie was made to address an agenda….subtilly supporting liberalization of the church with lines that make it seem Pope Benedict agreed that liberalizing the church is good. When in reality orthodoxy is God’s way.

  15. Talk about taking the joy out of a great film. I don’t know why anyone would think this was a buddy movie. I’m a devout Catholic with great respect for both popes. I didn’t think it was factual but more of a metaphor for the Church today. The great message, even if it is in the mind of the screen writer, is that what separates as Catholics can be bridged. I’m someone who can barely stand to hear the attacks on Pope Francis. Those who do are weakening the office of the papacy through their pride and lack of humility.

    • If it’s not factual (and it’s not), then it is dishonest to use the names of two men, two living men, for their fictional show.

  16. I really appreciated this movie review after watching the film with my wife. We are both committed Catholics and found the film to be unfair to Pope Benedict but nonetheless found we could manage that and still enjoy it.

  17. Christ used parables to transmit profound teachings and the old testament is full of parables, including the seven-day creation. This movie uses a parable format to streamline storytelling and should not be considered a documentary. The question is that if would have been more effective without the factual inaccuracies.

  18. “(despite Lynch’s loyalty to the scam known as Transcendental Meditation)”: Filip Mazurczak, you are misinformed. Transcendental Meditation is not a scam (nor is it a cult, or any of those stupid labels people have placed on it.) It is an effective technique that has, for example, relieved my mother of her migraines. There are countless of other benefits. You should try it. It might make you more tolerant.

  19. I watched the film a few days ago. I think there is a LOT in it and I had hoped this article might delve into some of the nuances and go deeper below the film’s surface. I might watch it again for the tiny details. I was impressed and did not expect to be. Did anyone else catch the river and the riverbed conversation which Bl. Fulton Sheen also references? (Or maybe that didn’t originate with him and I am showing my ignorance?)

  20. I came here to read the review after an acquaintance commented that he would not watch the movie because of the above review.

    I just watched the movie, on Netflix, and I thought it was pretty good, lovely, actually.

    To maintain second-hand opinions without forming one’s own from the easily accessible source material is lazy. Yes, it is a movie, and yes, it is entertainment, and yes, it is a serious subject, but to not see The Two Popes, and to walk around saying it’s garbage, is ignorance dressed up as knowledge.

  21. Watched the movie and loved it as it deals with human condition and its post modern challenges. It helped me to understand Benedict Papacy better. It gave me the insight into the lives of Catholic priests. They certainly deserve more empathy and compassion. Theirs is truly a challenging task, to serve God and humankind at the same time. I can certainly understand their fails better now. Yes, certain fails have more substance than some of our celebrated victories.

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