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Culture Focus

Two Men, Two Worlds: The Two Popes Movie Review

Image source: Netflix

At the start of  the movie The Two Popes, the protagonist, Cardinal Bergoglio, gives a sermon to an impoverished community in Buenos Aires. Recounting the ministry of St. Francis of Asisi, he narrates how the saint hears God’s voice instructing him to “repair my Church.” Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) continues explaining that St. Francis, as a practical man, went to a quarry and rebuilt the local church. Yet God meant for him to repair it not physically, but rather spiritually. In like manner, Bergoglio — the soon-to-become Pope Francis — is tasked with fixing the problems of the Catholic Church, especially those that developed during his predecessor’s papacy, Benedict XVI. 

The Two Popes is a movie that explains this need for a change in the Catholic Church through the relationship between Bergoglio and Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins). Director Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten craft an outstanding  pseudo-biographical drama closely-based on the lives of the real characters. The story begins with the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the immediate conclave, or election, of a new Pope. Here the viewer first encounters Bergoglio and Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI. Their encounter is somewhat adverse; each one leads a different faction of cardinals who have a vote on the election of the new pope. While Bergoglio supports a reform in the Church, Ratzinger holds to conservative values and this stance ultimately convinces the cardinals to vote for him. Feeling defeated, Bergoglio returns to Buenos Aires and  plans his retirement.

Yet years later Pope Benedict requests to meet with him in Italy. This news surprises Bergoglio, who had already purchased tickets to Rome to receive the Pope’s approval for his retirement. Benedict has a different plan in mind. Mulling over the difficult decision of continuing or stepping down from the papacy, Benedict hopes to meet Bergoglio to find out if he would be a good successor. 

After a series of conversations and discussions, the Pope realizes that he would be a good pope, and he reveals his plans to Bergoglio. In this process, the two become friends and realize that each can learn from the other. A year later, Benedict announces his retirement and the conclave meets again. This time the cardinals chose Bergoglio as Pope. Now it is time for Bergoglio, who changes his name to Pope Francis, to lead the Church and resolve the problems from the past.

In The Two Popes, Director Meirelles and writer McCarten skillfully juxtapose the differences between the conservative and reformist sides in the Church, each characterized by both protagonists. On one hand, there is Benedict, a confident priest who follows the traditions of the Church by the word; he wears the luxurious clothes that all popes have worn in the past and he believes that the cause of dropping numbers of Catholics is Liberalism. Benedict defends tradition and he considers himself “God’s rottweiler,” taking care of God’s house through dogma and theology. As such, Benedict believes that walls are good since they protect more than separate people. On the other hand, there is Bergoglio, a modest priest who supports reform within the Church. He refuses to live in the lavish residences of the clergy and he holds that the Church’s scrupulous attitude has driven people away from it. Bergoglio no longer wants to be a “salesman” for Catholicism and prefers to engage with working class people and the poor rather than with people of high status. He focuses on mercy, charity, and forgiveness rather than in mere theology.

While both Benedict and Bergoglio have strong stances on the Church and religion, the interaction between the two shows them that there’s something to learn from the other. In his conversation with Bergoglio, Benedict realizes that in his pursuit of tradition, he has become very stern and has neglected to get to know the people around him. Likewise, Bergoglio becomes aware that he needs to gain confidence in himself and that he must also be more protective of those around him. Here the movie shows the viewer that both sides are not exclusive of each other.

Yet the director is not unbiased, and he shows a preference for the reformist side. The critique on Benedict’s conservatism, the praise of Bergoglio’s humility, and the almost divine intervention of his election as Pope are too apparent. For example, Benedict’s pacemaker constantly reminding him to “don’t stop, keep walking” allude to his reluctance to change. Another instance comes when Benedict narrates how by blowing a candle and seeing the smoke descend rather than ascend to Heaven he feels that he is not in good terms with God. Yet at the end of the movie when Bergoglio becomes Pope, a supernatural force blows a candle and the smoke does ascend, implying that God is pleased with the decision. Small details like this one and the coincidental meeting between Bergoglio and Benedict in Rome evince the movie’s bias in favor of Francis.

Even with those shortcomings, The Two Popes is a great production that deserves more praise than backlash. It feels as though the movie is almost a documentary; the use of real and made up historical footage like news reports and social media posts gives it credibility. Moreover, the special effects are so well done that they convince the reader that the movie is actually taking place inside the Vatican or Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. The reality is that Vatican authorities are very restrictive of who can use their facilities, denying essentially anyone from filming there. Finally, the acting of Pryce and Hopkins is superb; there are moments when I forget I am watching a movie and I think that I am actually watching a conversation between Benedict and Bergoglio. The Two Popes truly was oscar-worthy.

An important element to keep in mind while watching this movie is that it is not an actual account of real-life events. No one except the cardinals know what happens in conclaves, and the lives of popes are very private, so it is impossible to determine if the actual conversations and events in the movie really happened. Some people may take The Two Popes to be a documentary because it feels like one, and this is especially the case for many of my fellow Catholics. On social media I came across comments from people with Catholic backgrounds who discouraged watching this movie because it was false and looked down upon the Church, and the truth is that the movie does that, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Recently, the Papacy and the Catholic Church have been shrouded in scandal and continue to restrain themselves from reaching out to people. This movie evinces this trend, and I am happy it did it because as Catholics we need to open our eyes to our mistakes and work together to overcome them. If prayer and church do not do that, hopefully a movie will.