‘The Two Popes’: A Film by Fernando Meirelles

Marc Rastoin, SJ

 Marc Rastoin, SJ / Culture / Published Date:17 January 2020/Last Updated Date:28 July 2020

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Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian director who became famous with the film City of God in 2002, loves transforming literary works into cinema. His latest, The Two Popes, is an adaption made in collaboration with the author of the play The Pope, Anthony McCarten, who also wrote The Pope: Francis, Benedict and the Decision that Shook the World.[1]

The Two Popes is a fiction that has as its protagonists the last two popes, Benedict and Francis . Rather than making a facile film about scandals and games of influence, the director has chosen to tell the story of two men of faith faced with a difficult decision.[2]

Everything starts from a simple idea: Cardinal Bergoglio is thinking about retiring. He would like to retire and become a parish priest again. He comes to Rome to make his request. At the same time, Benedict XVI is meditating on an important and virtually unprecedented decision: to resign from his office as bishop of Rome, and retire. So Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce)[3] and Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) meet and begin to discuss retirement. The use of surnames here is deliberate, a necessity, since the screenwriter intends primarily to talk to us about the meeting of two men in the flesh. But the film escapes the subtle pitfalls of filmed theatre and is able to incorporate long sequences from Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s earlier life in Argentina.

La Civilta Cattolica

In aesthetically convincing black and white, these sequences give the film a dynamism that Vatican conversations alone could not provide. These flashbacks, focused exclusively on Argentina, undoubtedly make Bergoglio the main character, although Anthony Hopkins’ formidable performance also makes Benedict XVI very present. Also worth noting is the beautiful music in the film, composed by Bryce Dessner, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Revenant (2015).

Films about popes – past and present – always run the risk of stopping at the pomp of institutions and neglecting the humanity. That is not the case here at all. While Castel Gandolfo is filmed beautifully, and the Sistine Chapel too, what the screenwriter and the director really want to talk to us about are other things: What is a spiritual decision? How can you commit your life to a sign? How to grow old carrying the weight of one’s past decisions while opening up to the future and what comes next? What place can prayer have in a decision and ultimately in the life of a man called to decide and rule? It is precisely this meeting of two men of faith that makes the film. Their vocation stories, their paths as young priests and their intellectual profiles are profoundly different. Yet both esteem and believe in the role of the papacy in the Church and in the power of prayer and confession.

Although inspired by facts known to all – the last two conclaves, the public images of the two men – the film does not hesitate to create. It really is a fiction inspired by real people, and the nuance is important. We have access to made-up moments and imagined conversations. While the atmosphere of the film is respectful toward the Church and the person of these two popes, moments of caricature are not lacking. The habitual demands of media comparison are such that, unfortunately, one gets used to them, and so here “conservatives” are opposed to “progressives,” and this distorts the personality of Benedict XVI. So the first conversation between the two men is undoubtedly too harsh.

But the film’s clear narrative strategy emerges and aims to show the progressive rapprochement of two very different personalities and the birth of a true friendship between two men that all else seems to suggest otherwise. “Seems,” because, after all, they share the essential and most important thing: a deep faith in a God with whom they speak, an awareness of the high mission of the priest, a soul that is in essence peacefully Catholic. There is a dimension of artificiality in this construction, but it is at the service of an exploration of the mystery of faith and the decisions it can inspire.

In the review published in the New York Times on November 26, 2019, critic Anthony Oliver Scott evokes “a subtle and engaging double portrait that touches on complicated matters of faith, ambition and moral responsibility.”[4] He adds that when Ratzinger and Bergoglio are together, “the actors draw out both the spiritual and psychological dimensions of their characters.” We agree with the judgement of many international critics and concur that the film is successful cinema and is highly credible.

The sequences that seemed to us the most beautiful and most touching are those set in Argentina. This is not a discussion about faith, prayer or the reforms of the Church, but about life itself. That is why we must not forget the third actor, Argentinean Juan Minujín, who masterfully represents the young Bergoglio.

We also recognize that it was in these sequences that there was a great risk of inventing too much. In three flashbacks, we discover three key moments in the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They are three moments that his biographers have analyzed at length and that will always escape any univocal understanding, because they concern the mystery of a human being and his conscience. They are the moments of the “yes” to vocation; that of the young provincial before the dictatorship; and, finally that of the archbishop, eager to always join the people, the humble of the Lord, el pueblo de Dios.

How to account for this decisive confession? We all know the broad outline of the story. Although he has been considering a priestly vocation, young Bergoglio is leaning toward marriage and is preparing to take a decisive step by going on a date with his fiancée. On the way, he decides to enter a church and goes to confession. Something unexpected happens here; he is given a “sign,” which he will read as a call from God.

The second moment is when Father Bergoglio tries to save his Jesuit companions who are hated by the dictatorship, two of them in particular, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. His hesitation, his choice to have a low profile in public to try to save as many threatened people (including many non-Catholic activists) are well represented, as is the inner burden that this decision makes him carry. The fact that later on Bergoglio acknowledged that he was perhaps a little too authoritarian, having been appointed provincial at a young age, is portrayed credibly.

The third moment describes – after the phase of deep introspection and contact with the faithful people of God in Córdoba – his activities as archbishop close to the shanty towns and suffering people. These three moments illuminate a man, yet preserve his mystery.

One of the great successes of the film is to be able to meditate on two very subtle and often badly perceived realities: prayer and confession. The two characters talk about their moments of desolation and consolation. In a certain sense, the homily in which Father Jorge Mario speaks of his moments of doubt echoes the doubt experienced by Benedict XVI before it forced him to resign. Prayer evolves with age and life: the presence of God is perceived, sometimes more easily, sometimes less so.

But the most original aspect of the film is perhaps to be found in the way it deals with confession. The screenplay has the ability to let people perceive the richness of confession, showing the beginning of the rite – the few words between two human beings in which God’s grace can introduce itself as the third voice – and at the same time, truly respecting its integrity preserved by the secret, both by not presenting  the crucial moment (this is true for Bergoglio’s confessions, and for Benedict’s) and by separating the “words” of the confessions from the “faces” of those who confess (in Córdoba).

Also worth noting is the unique soundtrack: Benedict XVI plays with rare elegance classical German music for piano, while Bergoglio is accompanied on the screen by music like Abba’s Dancing Queen, or a passionate Argentine tango.

It takes a lifetime to make a man; perhaps a whole lifetime to make a priest and, even more so, a pope. Popes follow one another without being necessarily similar. This is good news. Backed by superb direction, exceptional actors, original and well-chosen music, this film is a winner.

[1] Cf. A. McCarten, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision that Shook the World, London, Oberon Books, 2019.

[2] The Two Popes, a film (Netflix) by Fernando Meirelles, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

[3] Juan Minujín is the actor in the scenes about the youth of Pope Francis.

[4] A. O. Scott, “The Two Popes’ Review: Double Act at the Vatican” in The New York Times, November 26, 2019.