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Film Review: The Two Popes

The Two Popes (2019; Directed by Fernando Meirelles)

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) first encounters Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) in The Two Popes, the Argentinian clergyman is humming Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in a Vatican City bathroom on the eve of the 2005 Conclave that would elect his German counterpart to St. Peter’s throne as Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the global Catholic Church. Overhearing the melody, Ratzinger (a capable musician who later tries to impress Bergoglio by noting that he recorded an album of devotional music at the Beatles’ storied London studio Abbey Road, although he mixes up its name with that of Westminster Abbey, which would not have been appropriate for the Bishop of Rome to step into) asks him which hymn it is. It’s an illustrative moment of the two subsequent pontiffs’ diverging approaches, a difference that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is fond of grounding in recognizable touchstones of ordinary modern life.

Such touchstones are generally expected to be impossibly distant from the gilded marble confines of the pontificate, and for Benedict XVI, a dogmatic conservative immersed deeply in the inner affairs of the church and the faith as a respected theologian for a half-century before becoming pope, they genuinely are. Not so for Bergoglio, an Argentinian Jesuit whose career and life as a churchman was marked by the quotidian realities of the life, passions, and dangerous politics of the people of his country, and who would take as his pontifical name the moniker of Saint Francis of Assisi, champion of the downtrodden poor. Much of The Two Popes is set in opulent and historic papal palaces and grounded in the theological and philosophical sparring and tentative interpersonal rapprochement of the pontiffs present and future, played with such subtle yet comprehensive observance and wit by Pryce and Hopkins (McCarten based the screenplay on his own stage play, and it often shows). But director Fernando Meirelles – who co-directed City of God, the stunning operatic gutters tragedy of the Brazilian favelas is just as interested in using Bergoglio’s biography to tell a painful and troubled story about Latin American history and the Church’s ambivalent role in that history.

Meirelles cleverly employs bravura cinematic language to demonstrate the intricate, intimate integration of secular society and the structures of religion in Latin America at the film’s beginning. As the audio of a public sermon by Bergoglio from his time as a bishop touches on a metaphorical narrative of faith, Argentinian citizens flit and bustle through back lanes of Buenos Aires, cinematographer César Charlone’s camera lingering on biblically-themed wall murals that artfully reflect details in the parable. The scene closes with the wry and often impish Bergoglio mildly punning on San Lorenzo, his favourite Argentinian football club as well as, of course, a Christian martyr, well-known as the patron saint of chefs but also of comedians, which Bergoglio sometimes fancies himself.

His jokes and clever asides begin to frustrate Ratzinger when they meet several years after Benedict XVI’s election to the papacy, as Bergoglio seeks to offer his resignation from his archbishopric and Ratzinger begins to contemplate resigning from the Church’s top position himself. Much of the action (such as it is) of The Two Popes unfolds in the interactions of these two men, at the Pope’s summer residence Castel Gandolfo (where the earthy Bergoglio chats about oregano with the gardener), then in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican itself, where papal elections are held. Their conversations about their views of church dogma, personal interests, and life histories spin off into flashbacks, mainly to Bergoglio’s younger days (Juan Minujín plays this younger Bergoglio) in his home nation, when he chose the love of God over romantic love for a woman and then awkwardly navigated the fraught and often deadly political atmosphere of the 1976 junta coup in Argentina and the brutal repressions of the subsequent Dirty War in a manner that he has come to regret and that had terrible consequences for some of his fellow Jesuits, who were imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship.

Oddly, McCarten and Meirelles decide that Ratzinger’s younger experiences (which include being notoriously gangpressed into the Hitler Youth and then the German army during World War II, for pete’s sake) are not as worthy of dramatized inclusion, nor are his own regrets worth exploring in similar depth. In The Two Popes‘ most striking and contentious moment, Ratzinger gives confession to Bergoglio in the intimate Sistine Chapel sacristry (before sharing pizza and Fanta, which Bergoglio is amusingly eager to tuck into while Ratzinger laboriously says grace). The diegetic dialogue fades into silence as Ratzinger shares with his future successor his perceived sin of inaction as regards the prominent priest and notorious sexual abuser Marcial Maciel, who Benedict did remove after he was elected pope but far later than he felt that he should have.

The choice of literally going silent in this scene (and focusing on Pryce’s reaction shots to impart the impact of what his predecessor is saying) has the effect of turning away out of polite respect at this pivotal moment of regret and penitence. Confession in Catholic practice is a private act between believer and priest, the foundation of the implicit and unshakeable trust between shepherd and flock that is the rock of the Church. The deep moral horror of the decades-spanning sexual abuse scandal, however, is that it shattered that trust and thus damaged that vital relationship in quite likely an irrevocable fashion. According Ratzinger implied sympathy and even absolution in this moment compounds the violation, in its minor but potent way. McCarten and Meirelles look away, just as Church leaders did for too long.

Of course, The Two Popes was made with what appears to be some modicum of cooperation or at least semi-approving indifference from the Vatican (that’s not the real Sistine Chapel in the film, however, but a full-size replica set built at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios). Given this, it’s hardly likely that the film would openly or aggressively criticize the Church’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal (which still manages to be unsatisfying and insufficient, even under the generally popular and supposedly liberal and modern Francis I). What The Two Popes does do is venture perilously close to soft-focus hagiographic propaganda, especially in its portrayal of Bergoglio. Between conversations between the two old men and interstitial expository news reports, it is acknowledged that despite Bergoglio’s occasional statements treading ambiguously close to liberal positions on the Catholic Church’s most controversially reactionary policies regarding homosexuality, abortion, sacraments to divorced people, and woman priests, he represents more dogmatic continuity with the famously conservative Ratzinger’s papacy than is generally acknowledged. Alternatively, I defy anyone to watch The Two Popes and not come out of it with the firm impression that Bergoglio is a pretty cool dude, for a Pope (“and all the Catholics say he’s a pretty fly / for Il Papa“).

The breath of fresh air purportedly represented by the ascension of Pope Francis has always been more based in PR savvy and superficial gestures and public interactions by the sly Bergoglio than in a deeper shift in Church teaching or policy. Bergoglio is a man of the modern world far more than Ratzinger (who even as Pope Emeritus continues to issue missives blaming the Church’s endemic molestation problems on liberal leanings inside the institution and secular permissiveness outside it) ever was, but both men are the avatars of a faded order of moral instruction that cannot even cope effectively with its own hypocrisy and corruption, let alone pronounce spiritual cures for the larger ills of the world. Like media concerning old-world cocoons of privilege around the British royal family like The Crown or the papacy in Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope, The Two Popes offers a (mildly fictionalized) glimpse behind the curtain of idiosyncratically anachronistic temporal power and humanizes the struggles of the people elevated beyond mere temporal concerns by that mantle of power falling upon them. But it does not challenge or interrogate the terms of that power nor the judiciousness or efficacy with which it is employed as it might more productively have done.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
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