The Two Popes
The politics of the Vatican are a fascinating subject to dive into. And yet a lot of filmmakers are still afraid of touching such a sensitive subject for over 1 billion believers worldwide. However, there have been successful introspections into the Catholic papacy, the most recent of which is the telling of a meeting between two popes: Benedict XVI and Francis I.
The Two Popes (2019) is a look into the curious situation that the world finds itself in today, having two living popes (albeit one retired). The story follows how German cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, bringing the church away from the reformists that had taken hold during John Paul II’s tenure, and back towards the conservatives. The film is mostly told from the point of view of Argentine cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who was the alternative to Ratzinger in 2005, but his disinterest in the post had him fly back to Buenos Aires. The majority of the film revolves around the conversations that these two men had in 2012 when Bergoglio came to Rome to supposedly hand in his resignation as cardinal, only for history to show that it would be Ratzinger who would abdicate.
The film is forced to use its imagination heavily, since there is no documentation as to the relationship or conversations between Bergoglio and Ratzinger. As such, screenwriter Anthony McCarten is able to craft a believable clash of theological perspectives, and perfectly encapsulates the tension between the conservative and reformist sides of the Catholic Church. The film is directed by Fernando Meirelles, who jolts the screen with more life than one would expect from a film about Popes. We have curious renditions of ABBA and the anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao,” in scenes one would never have expected; their placement is jarring, and yet it seems to fit with the oncoming future invading the antiquated halls of Ratzinger’s Vatican.
The film doesn’t seem to take on a spiritual perspective, per se, instead, the entire narrative seems to be rather informative, to the point of journalistic. For those ignorant of the backgrounds of Bergoglio and Ratzinger, and of the basic workings of the Vatican, it will be fascinating. However, for those more in touch with the current Catholic events, only a certain jovial tone from Meirelles will stick. This fun tone is achieved thanks to some superb performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, the latter of whom gives a career best. They are able to bring about a certain lightness to the complexities of theological politics and make the film more digestible for a more general audience. However, given the religious subject matter, I was hoping for a more spiritual exploration to take place. McCarten and Meirelles seem to think that spirituality comes from the exploration of memory and the past, instead of a connection to the present and abstract. This papal-spiritual dialogue was investigated much more in HBO’s limited series The Young Pope (2016), which even had a visual style that immersed the viewer in an incorporeal atmosphere.
The Two Popes seems to avoid delving too deeply into uncomfortable subjects regarding the church. There are mere mentions of the sexual abuse of priests, or the suspected corruption under Ratzinger. McCarten and Meirelles seem much more transfixed with Bergoglio and his journey, with the last 30 minutes being dedicated to telling his life story: from his surprising turn to priesthood, to his collaboration with the Argentine dictatorship in the 70s, to his penance and rise to cardinal. These seem to be incredibly rushed, however, and one begins to wonder if an individual film about Bergoglio’s life was what the filmmakers had actually wanted to do all along.
The Two Popes ends up being a simplified film of how the papacy works, and of recent events involving it. The filmmakers choose to keep a clear and light tone, not wanting to delve into subjects that are too uncomfortable, instead having conflict play out as a debate between the conservative and reformist minds of the church; the doling of which is incarnated beautifully by the two incredible performers.