The Two Popes
The last film that I will review in 2019 was one I had been waiting for with baited breath. What a premise this is, if you are looking for quality drama to mine. Two excellent casting decisions for the two leads. A director with a serious pedigree. A script from the man who has cleaned up recently when it comes to the biopic genre. And the chance for a deep and relevant debate, on-screen, over the current status and future of the Roman Catholic Church.
Because that is something that I often find myself thinking about, and even more so in the Christmas season. I maintain a religious side to myself that I would quantify as Christian to an extent, but for a long time now can only be considered a lapsed Catholic and little more, out and proud as “pick-and-choose”. The scandals, the rooted attachment to dated traditions and the sense that the Church has little to offer me are all reasons why. For me, Pope Francis’ ascent to the Papal throne was an event of little consequence, as I genuinely thought him to be a propaganda choice, a quasi-progressive face to put on an institution that, by-and-large, is still the arrogant, greedy, pretentious, sexist and ill-placed thing that I witnessed on my lone visit to the Vatican City, the moment I realised the Church had no place for me at that time.
Fernando Meirelles’ movie, as fabricated as it is, seems the perfect stage for that debate to be played out, and to examine the recent history of the Church as it looks to the future. Was it a worthy endevour, and an actors dream production to boot? Or are the events leading to Benedict XVI’s abdication too recent to be decent drama?
In 2005 arch-traditionalist Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) is elected Pope, leaving reform-minded Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) disillusioned with the direction the Church is taking. Seven years later, Bergoglio travels to meet Benedict XVI to seek permission to retire, and is stunned to learn the Pope, beset by scandal and doubting his ability as Pontiff, plans to resign. Benedict believes Bergoglio to be the man fated to succeed him: the two discuss the problems of the Church, and why the future Pope Francis is best placed to provide the solutions.
The Two Popes, when all is said and done and after the elaborate Cardinal or Papal clothing and spectacular backdrops of the Sistine Chapel are stripped away, is simply two old men talking about what the Roman Catholic Church needs to be. One, valuing the millennia of tradition, sees strength in conservative values that have endured so much; the other, valuing the practicalities of a changing world, see’s that fundamental change is the only way forward. The direct topic of conversation may be whether Jorge Bergoglio has the will to take on the task, but that’s all that The Two Popes is, a micro-chasm of a debate that dominates discussion of the Church.
The film lives or dies on whether that debate is worth having in this manner, and I’m happy to say that The Two Popes is a rousing success on that score. Of course one must realise that we are seeing only the perspective of a single scriptwriter in summing up the two sides, but regardless The Two Popes is a respectful, insightful and engaging effort at representing that debate, that finds its main strength in sparkling wordplay, and in the relationship forged between the two disparate characters that are the centre of its drama.
Both Hopkins and Pryce settle into their opposing parts and fully make them their own, imbuing The Two Popes with twin character studies even as it focuses so much on the larger debate. The two couldn’t be more different, in mood or temperament: the first time they meet, in a bathroom ahead of the 2005 conclave, Ratzinger asks Bergoglio what hymn he is humming, and is stunned when the answer is an unembarrassed “Dancing Queen”. The point is made, ahead of numerous, effective, reiterations. The German Pope is a reserved, quiet, theological purist, whose efforts at maximising the dignity of his office makes him aloof and lonely, while the future Argentinian Pope is a down-to-Earth guy with his finger on the pulse of a more modern world, and won’t apologise for being so. And it is the elitist who is jealous of the populist.
One must appreciate the two in turn. Hopkins plays a Benedict full of palpable regret, both for the scandals that he had a part to play in – he pathetically attempts to deflect his role in protecting pedophile priests, but his heart isn’t in it – the ones he was more of a bystander for and for his own seeming inadequacy for the task of being Pope in such an environment. Hopkins, long since a master of his trade, presents Ratzinger as a lonely old man, more prone to mirthless chuckles than any genuine joy, who despite his disagreements with Bergoglio, is so happy to have someone to talk to on this level. For all of his claims to want to be the traditional patriarch, distant and dignified, he still wants to be liked, a quandary exemplified best in a scene where Benedict allows himself to mingle with the Catholic flock in Bergoglio’s manner.
The central question the film wants to ask of him is why exactly he’s resigning, rejecting issues of old age and health: what Mirelles posits is undoubtedly at least a partial fiction, but one that fits thematically. As Benedict himself puts it “God always corrects one pope by presenting the world with another pope…I should like to see my correction.” The correction is Pryce’s Bergoglio, a real man of the people.
Where Ratzinger is introduced as a scheming politicker, Bergoglio gives public masses in Buenos Aires, wherein he lauds his favourite football team in his sermons. He refuses to sit in the back when being chauffeured, and is incredulous at being asked to wear his full Cardinal gear when going to meet the Pope privately. He loves to tell jokes: when Benedict suggests he has an arrogance problem he answers “How does an Argentinian man commit suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps” (later, when Benedict isn’t able to garner a laugh when he tries, he shrugs and says “It’s a German joke, it doesn’t have to be funny”). Pryce plays Bergoglio with a wry smile and easy-to-like energy, capturing much of what makes Francis the beloved figure that he is. The future Pope chats amicably with the Swiss Guard assigned to him, he orders pizza into the Room of Tears and, ever and anon, expresses his obsession with football (in contrast, Benedict “never really understood the appeal”).
Football is, strangely enough, at the heart of what The Two Popes is trying to present with the main characters. The populist Bergoglio adores the game (when giving up the possibilities of romance to become a priest, he comforts himself by saying he “still has San Lorenzo”) while Ratzinger appears to have no sporting interests whatsoever. But over time, as the men present thesis and antithesis on a wide variety of issue and on their personalities, the synthesis is formed, and the closing moments of the The Two Popes, involving a private party and the 2014 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany, is the best representation of a well-earned and cathartic reconciliation.
The majority of The Two Popes is really two set-pieces, the first a conversation between the titular pontiffs in the Castel Gandalfo, and the second another lengthy back-and-forth in the Sistine Chapel. The first is a sizzling and oft-times bitter debate, where Ratzinger challenges Bergoglio on topic after topic: homosexuality, communion for the divorced, et al. Bergoglio protests that he has been “misquoted” by the press on many of these issues, but can’t hide his relatively liberal values, things that the acidly tongued Ratzinger detests.
The verbal sparring is a thrill to witness: Bergoglio advocates change to go with the times, Ratzinger declares a Church that bows to change in one era will be lost in the next. Ratzinger advocates the ascendant and elite position of the Church as a moral force, Bergoglio counters that such thinking only builds walls. And walls are one thing that Bergoglio cannot contemplate, with the beautifully written declaration that “Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls”, when asked to justify his stances on atheists, homosexuals and the divorced. Benedict insists that doctrine is doctrine, while Bergoglio thinks that God can be found on a journey, wherein the Pope nastily suggests they should take a walk in the garden where they might find God: “I’ll introduce you to him”. Bergoglio just wants permission to retire, but Benedict will not assent, reasoning that such a retirement would be taken by many as a criticism of the Church (which, of course, it would be: Benedict makes the point that even Bergoglio’s plain shoes are a criticism of the Church).
This would be just dry discourse without bite, and the bite well and truly comes, as Bergoglio warns that the Church became so focused on outside threats they did little to stop the internal ones, namely the sexual depredation of so many priests. Ratzinger, feeling guilt for his inaction and wrong action on the issue, lashes out, suggesting that Bergoglio, if it feels as he does, should not even be a priest, leaving the Argentinian shell-shocked at such an insult.
The road back to reconciliation comes with a more personal connection – the two bond over a love of music, even if they don’t really like the same stuff – and over Benedict’s obvious belief that he has made mistakes, where The Two Popes presumably strays the furthest from the historical record. The second set-piece is that Sistine Chapel conversation, that turns into an elongated flashback sequence regarding Bergoglio’s record in Argentina during the rule of the military junta and the so-called “Dirty War”. Bergoglio is outraged at the idea that Benedict will resign – he pointedly contends that a church with two Popes will be an absurdity – and dismisses Benedict’s suggestion that he will certainly be elevated when the conclave meets, owing to what he did, and did not do, in the 1970’s.
The Two Popes is a positive portrayal of Francis, so it comes as little surprise that its examination of his Dirty War experience is more in the line of presenting him as a needless self-flagellant over things he could not hope to change, rather than a man with a past he should feel genuine guilt over. Much like Benedict’s time in the Hitler Youth that often has him enduring snide and inaccurate insults of “Nazi”, Francis’ reticence in speaking out against the military regieme is largely side-stepped, though the elongated flashbacks sequences, where Juan Minujin takes over playing the role, are still interesting all the same. They add a sense of pathos to Bergoglio even if the examination is not as thorough as you would like, dragging him down to Benedict’s not-so-saintly level. One day you can be a hero, the next the villain. Of course, the absolution sought by either Pope is a private thing. One cannot help but think of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary: “Do not despair, a thief was saved. Do not presume, a thief was damned”.
Meirelles directs a good-looking production, one that eschews any fancy camerawork in favour of something akin to a documentary style. For much of the conversations between Benedict and Francis, we are made to feel as if we are mere eavesdroppers with the slightly shaky, sometimes awkwardly angled camera shots, like the person holding the device is trying their very best not to be noticed. This is altered in the flashback sequences when things are steadier, and in monochrome for large stretches, Bergoglio’s younger life presented almost as a film noir, that changes into colour only when he takes the decisive step of accepting “the call” to join the priesthood. There is an unexpected dynamism elsewhere, such as a sequence where Meirelles presents some of the realities of a Papal conclave, like the counted votes tied together with strong ahead of their cremation, the director cutting to the dissapointed or elated crowds outside.
My objections to the role of the Catholic Church in today’s society are varied, but one of them is certainly the sense, undeniable, that the institution has long since lost the run of itself, with its wealth, its demonstrations of power, its unnecessary pageantry, that makes a mockery of a faith founded on the back of a man born in a stable. In that regard, I won’t deny my pleasure, whether the basis was fictional or not, at Francis’ words when he is first offered the showy accouterments Popes are expected to wear at their first presentation to the world: “The carnival is over”. The real Pope probably ever said such a thing, but the sentiment uttered by Pryce’s version is balm to the soul of a world-weary Catholic.
Two days ago, a year on from actively refusing to attend mass at Christmas for the first time in my life, I went back to the church with my mother, and while I cannot say that the service, a rushed and unfulfilling experience carried out by a priest who had already done several masses that day, was what I wanted it to be, I actually can credit this film for being one of the reasons I was there. It reminded me that there is good in the Church, and potential for the institution to change for the better. Slowly, always slowly, but Francis’ words and deeds since his election have been a positive addition to the history of Roman Catholicism. And there is much more to do.
For that reason I think quite positively of The Two Popes, and that is before we get into the two wonderful performances at its heart, which make the very most that they can out of Anthony McCarten’s moving, engaging and witty script. The Two Popes is the kind of film that every Catholic should see, just for the way that the debate between the conservative past and the inevitably liberalised future is framed: it helps to remind me, a pick-and-choose Catholic who long since took up that term as a badge of honour, that we will win, eventually. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).