The Two Popes

THE TWO POPES,  UK/Argentina/Italy/US, 2019. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. 125 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).

There are many reasons, good reasons, to see The Two Popes.

There is the articulate and elegant writing by British screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, who was responsible for the screenplays of The Theory of Everything, The Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody He has done his research on Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, drawing on many of their statements as well as using his imagination to create conversations between them.

Anthony Hopkins makes a credible Benedict XVI, a ‘behind the scenes’ performance, Jonathan Pryce a vigorous Francis. The film has a fine Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles, whose films include City of God, The Constant Gardener, Blindness – and the opening of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

And the look of the film is striking, the stylish photography, the Vatican settings, the 2005 conclave, the Sistine Chapel, the papal apartments, St Peter’s and the Piazza, the Cardinals staying at Santa Marta, a visit to Castel Gandolfo. By contrast, the film brings Buenos Aires alive, first of all in the 21st-century, the outdoors ministry of Cardinal Bergoglio, then black and white flashbacks to his younger years, his vocation decisions, and then a dramatisation of the drastic years of the Generals, especially in the 1970s. There are also some surprises with the musical score, not just the expected serious and religious themes, some classical music, but a number of more contemporary songs, creating atmosphere.

Some of the issues include the stances of each of them concerning belief and doctrine, the traditional teachings of the church, contemporary moral issues. Part of the drama is that they do not see eye to eye on some of these issues, the difficulties of combining authority and tradition with pastoral demands. But, as indicated earlier, there is quite a deal of God-language, discussions about faith and prayer, the two men devout, a confession sequence, Benedict to Francis, which takes the film beyond ordinary dialogue.

The portrait of Francis is extensive, black-and-white photography of him as a young man, searching for his vocation, the possibility for marriage, his choices and entry into the seminary (filmed in black and white).There is also the controversy about Bergoglio and the generals, his turn as provincial wanting to protect the lives of the Jesuits, asking them to close some of their ministries because they were considered too dangerous, some defiance and him on the part of social-minded confreres. Cardinal Bergoglio admits mistakes publicly, sorry for the decisions that he had made, reconciling with some of his conferences. These experiences enable him, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires to reach out to the poor. a social-minded pastor, an extrovert who is comfortable in meeting all kinds of people, enjoying their company (especially in supporting his football team, San Lorenzo), familiar with aspects of popular culture.

By contrast, there is no visual portrait of Benedict’s life. There are verbal references, and his saying that he was more introverted, bookish, intellectual, and had not any of the pastoral outreach of the Bergoglio. (Audiences may well enjoy a sequence where the two are in a side sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, tourists arriving, Benedict’s decision for the two to walk through the Chapel, the tourists becoming excited – and a number of selfies!).

Towards the end of the film there will be the 2013 conclave, the discussions, the assembly, the voting, the acceptance – and Francis not wanting special shoes, not wanting the ermine cape (“the carnival is over”), emerging to the cheering crowds and simply saying, “Buena Sera” (good evening).

Which means then that involved Catholics, with faith and loyalty, will find this two hour immersion into the life of the church of great interest, of encouragement. For nominal Catholics, the film offers an occasion, even an invitation, to more thought and assessment, re-assessment. It will be the same for lapsed Catholics. For ecumenical and interfaith audiences, the drama is both attractive and thought-provoking. And for non-religious audiences, they will appreciate good drama, good writing and performances, character studies – and an opportunity to give further thought to the credibility, life and mission of the Catholic Church.

At the core of the conversation is Benedict’s resignation. There is a dramatic buildup in so far as Cardinal Bergoglio travels to the Vatican, continually tries to persuade Benedict to accept his resignation. Because of the differences in perspective between the two, Benedict says that the resignation might be interpreted as a criticism of Benedict’s direction of the church. So, there is much discussion to illustrate the different perceptions of each of the men.

The film then takes the advantage of quoting Francis’s words of social concern, his first trip outside the Vatican to Lampedusa to meet refugees who had sailed across the Mediterranean from North Africa, images of small boats and overwhelming waves, the faces of those in need. To that extent, the ending is venture into preaching, social preaching.

The Two Popes is certainly worth watching – and watching again.

Netflix                                     Released December 5th

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