Smoke rising from a snuffed candle, a symbol that a religious sacrifice has been acceptable to God, foreshadows a not too subtle theme in The Two Popes, the two-hour absorbing Netflix movie that imagines the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit who replaced him and became Pope Francis.
The movie begins in 2012 when Bergoglio is about to turn 75, the mandatory age for retirement. He shambles with scuffed shoes into the pope’s sumptuous summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to submit his resignation as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aries.
The script by Anthony McCarten, inspired by his book Francis, Benedict and the Decision That Shook the World, embroiders the truth. The movie uses the two clerics to dramatize the real debate between liberals and conservatives in the Church. It is a legitimate, if disingenuous, theatrical device lovingly mounted by Brazilian director Fernando Ferreira Meirelles.
The Two Popes succeeds as provocative theatre because of the imagined conflict, and because of the immaculate performances of Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio (Juan Minujin as the young Bergoglio) and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI. The conversations never happened, but the script relies heavily on things the two men have written.
Their wry and authentic characterizations often make you forget that what you are watching is fiction. When the two first meet, Benedict is still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a humourless ascetic, an authoritarian classical pianist and intellectual who believes that as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he has all theological bases covered. Bergoglio, on the other hand, is depicted as an Abba whistling, somewhat guilt ridden, soccer-loving progressive, whose faith has been informed by the day-to-day reality of ministering to the poor as he navigates the extreme right-wing, anti-Catholic politics of Argentina’s military junta.
Benedict clearly disapproves of Bergoglio’s apparent elastic approach to the rules, his lack of decorum, his sympathy for the morally marginal, and especially his practice of distributing communion to divorced Catholics. Bergoglio counters that the sacraments are “not a reward for the virtuous, but food for the starving.”
As they attempt small talk, Benedict confesses he cannot remember jokes. “Remembering jokes is an essential part of Jesuit training,” Bergoglio replies.
They spar but gradually warm to each other over pizza. They even dance a tango together. In spite of their philosophical differences, as they keep talking Benedict keeps side stepping the business of Bergoglio’s resignation. We learn why in the movie’s pivotal scene when Benedict informs Bergoglio that the Church needs to change, and that he sees the necessity for a Bergoglio to implement that change.
Bergoglio is taken aback at the suggestion that a Pope can leave office.
“If you resign you will damage the papacy forever,” he protests, “Two popes? It is unthinkable 1.2 billion believers need to know why.”
Benedict asks Bergoglio to hear his confession, admitting to “numerous venial sins, but I am getting too old and forgetful to know what they are.”
He then tells Bergoglio that he has failed as Pope because he has “not had the courage to taste of life itself.” He has been so absorbed in the love of books and studies that he has been left, ”empty and void” of the world that he is meant to help.
The movie conveniently ignores or glosses over the historical record. In spite of his aloof image, Benedict has, like Francis, championed the poor and is on record as saying “because through them God shows us the way to Heaven.” Like Pope Francis, he too has railed against the “unconditional surrender to the laws of market and finance.” Implied, however, is that Benedict has failed because of the pedophile scandal that has damaged the Church, and because of the Vatican Bank scandal.
The biggest disappointment is that while the film explores Bergoglio’s haunted past in depth, we learn nothing of Ratzinger’s background as a young member of the Hitler Youth movement who later served in the German Air Force as a Luffwaffen helfe. But in this telling of The Two Popes, none of that matters.
Bergoglio wins the debate, the smoke from his candle rises heavenward, and, just as he was then elected Pope Francis, in this telling he has won our hearts. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the film, but it helps to understand that the Church is not as authoritarian as some might think. While the two Popes disagree on what it means to be a practicing Catholic, they never disagree on basic Church doctrine.