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The Two Popes

Released 2019. Director: Fernando Meirelles

A MOVIE ABOUT THE POPE PROBABLY SOUNDS AS EXCITING as one about an old man reading the Bible for two hours. Not just one but two Popes, dear me. How the movie ends up so engrossing, entertaining and even funny at times is not so much a miracle as a testament to the City of God director Fernando Meirelles’ deft skills, Anthony McCarten’s witty, intelligent and thoughtful script, and the chemistry between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

The Two Popes takes us into the Vatican, not to see how His Holiness works and where he lives, but really, to humanise a figure of authority with 1.2 billion followers, to show us the person behind all the pomp and ecclesiastical weight, that the pope too has problems, doubts, and is definitely not infallible.

Let’s go back in time a little. Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was contemplating leaving his post. As the movie shows, Bergoglio is a vital part of his community. He mingles, he talks football, he’s a down-to-earth people’s person popular with the congregation. He's more like everyone’s favourite uncle or grandpa.

But Bergoglio feels the Church is slipping behind and not progressing with a changing world. He tries to get in touch with Pope Benedict XVI to tender his resignation but his letters to the Vatican have gone unanswered. Then one day, the Pope sends him an invitation.

The Two Popes is a series of conversations between two old men, that’s one way to describe it. If you’re averse to movies where the characters mostly talk, then this might not be for you. Some of the best movies, however, are basically just people talking (the Before trilogy instantly comes to mind), and The Two Popes is certainly one of them.

These are not ordinary men. These are men in high positions and deep faith. They have strong views and the ability to articulate them with persuasion, conviction, and force. They are also men with problems they cannot simply talk about like most people do, and their dialogue gets more interesting and urgent.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay probes the interiors of Benedict XVI and Bergoglio as far as one dares to. The exchanges are by turns argumentative, thought-provoking, and revealing. On the surface they appear to be two leaders in opposing teams. On a deeper level they are confiding, as if making confessionals.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was made Pope Benedict XVI in a clear move to preserve tradition over reform, had the conclave gone for Bergoglio. Benedict XVI and Bergoglio have their differences and disagreements and they are each other’s critic. Which is why Bergoglio is surprised when Benedict XVI refuses to accept his resignation. More surprises ahead when Benedict XVI confides in Bergoglio that he wishes to abdicate, and sizes up Bergoglio as a replacement.

“If you resign, you’ll damage the papacy,” Bergoglio tries to dissuade the pontiff.

“What damage would I do if I remained?” Benedict XVI understands what the Church needs is a leader with a vision for reform, someone just like Bergoglio.

Anthony Hopkins may display the physical frailty of an 85-year-old character, but he also possesses Benedict XVI’s piercing eyes, like a hunter with his sight trained on a target. At times he hunches and bends, as old men do, yet losing none of the authority and unmistakable steeliness.

Jonathan Pryce bears a passing resemblance to the real Pope Francis and his portrayal of Bergoglio is one that even the non-religious could warm to. Whilst he’s committed to his belief, Bergoglio also believes the Church must evolve and adapt and Pryce conveys his personal journey with humour, humility and melancholy.

Both actors bring out the men behind the ceremonial frocks and incantations. It’s fair to say that these two actors have achieved something few others have done by showing us the vulnerabilities in a pope, the conflicts they harbour, their worries and reservations and the sense of trap they find themselves in. We come to sympathize with their circumstances. One has decided to step down for Catholicism to move ahead. The other one has planned to leave but he must stay to take over the responsibility.

Perhaps the most illuminating part is the movie’s acknowledgement of the blemishes on their records, justified or not: Ratzinger’s controversial connections to the Nazis in his youth; Bergolio’s involvement with Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Both men are conflicted souls, more so it seems for Bergoglio who sacrificed his personal life for religion on the cusp of his engagement.

There is an understated scene where Bergoglio listens to Benedict’s confession on the Church’s cover-up of historical child sex abuse. The sound is muted in a fade-out so we don’t hear the words but the implications are thunderous. The pope questions the presence of God in the silence. The internal crisis for both men is a heavy burden.

In spite of the setting, Fernando Meirelles does not lean too heavily on making his movie a religious think-piece. Ultimately, The Two Popes takes us behind closed doors to look at two men in an exalted position, bound by centuries of rules, reconciling their compromises, balancing their personal struggles, and making us realise they are mere men after all. Men who enjoy watching football, a cop show with a German Shepherd, and whistling Abba’s Dancing Queen, as they go about doing what they do, watched and scrutinised by billions.


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