We need someone to blow the ash away.
I’m a lapsed Catholic who cynically wonders why the Pope isn’t considered a false idol—a direct result of my loathing of the church as a corrupt and hypocritical institution. I adopted this position years ago for the same reasons many others have. Catholicism has constantly proven itself to be nothing but alienating to those who would rather see with their own eyes than ignore moral truths by wielding scripture as an excuse for hate. It’s unyielding on certain human rights issues, refuses to adapt to its changing congregation, and renders the Papacy obsolete amongst democratic ideals much like most royal families. So you won’t be surprised to hear that The Two Popes languished at the bottom of my to-see list for many months. I couldn’t muster enthusiasm.
It’s ironic then that Fernando Meirelles‘ film (adapted by Anthony McCarten from his own play) actually targets those like me. I might have even known this had I followed the comings and goings of the last few Popes besides reductive labels relegating Pope Benedict XVI as a Hitler Youth and Pope Francis as a meme. That’s why stories like this are so important. What looks like a vanity project on the surface—an advertisement for the church—is instead a rather complex and introspective look at the shortcomings that drove me away. It confronts their complicity to countless child abuse scandals, their historical compromises that led to backing genocidal regimes, and the self-reflection and piousness necessary to repent. It’s a changing of the guard decades in the making.
What surprised me more is the fact that it’s also very funny despite somber 2005 beginnings upon the death of Pope John Paul II. A conclave has been called and all Cardinals have arrived. The buzz in the room points towards the man glad-handing everyone with a smile as the obvious successor save for a few outliers clamoring for reform. The former is conservative pick Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins as the soon-to-be Benedict) while the latter group gravitates towards popular champion of the poor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce‘s soon-to-be Francis). One is a severely buttoned-up rules lawyer devoid of a sense of humor while the other hums Abba and marvels with judgment at the Vatican’s excessive opulence. One wants the title, the other doesn’t.
This is all exposition to understand their underlying differences: European elite versus South American struggle, status quo versus expanded acceptance, and laconic versus loquacious. Years go by wherein Benedict is rightfully treated poorly as far as his response to the mounting evidence that a cover-up helped priests prey upon young boys. And during that time Bergoglio accepts the reality that things aren’t changing fast enough for him to remain steadfast in his belief that the church is worth protecting. Both are therefore emotionally drained and heavy with sorrow as well as fatefully making plans to meet in Rome without the other yet knowing. Bergoglio wants to resign in-person as Benedict requests his presence to discuss that same resignation. And for three days they candidly lay everything out.
It’s an odd couple pairing in the best way with Pryce always having something witty (and pithy) to say in response to Hopkins’ straight man solemnity. These two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed where their aspirations for Catholicism are concerned and yet Benedict won’t stop avoiding Bergoglio’s demands for the signature he needs to be released. The Pope does have a pragmatic reason to stop short considering appearances will always trump truth when it comes to a person in power accepting his/her strongest opponent’s resignation, but it’s easy to see there’s more to his decision than that alone. It becomes clearer as they remain in close proximity thanks to Benedict’s gradual thaw and Bergoglio’s inevitable admission of why he’s always been reluctant to lead despite ample support.
Day one is about laughing at their contradictions and recognizing how appearances can be deceiving. Day two is about duty and the responsibilities of their current stations separating them (Benedict closing himself off to be the martyred physical embodiment of Christ on the cross while Bergoglio walks the streets to enjoy soccer matches with the people). And day three is a confessional for both men to admit their mistakes and the wealth of guilt and regret they’ve held onto because of who they thought they had to be as players in a much bigger picture than their individual lives. This revelation mostly stems from flashbacks showing Bergoglio (Juan Minujín) as a flawed human being walking the long and difficult road towards the positive symbol of hope he’s become.
McCarten crafts some really powerful conversations that break the walls that have divided these two polar opposites in order for them to see how similar they are beneath their politics and beliefs. Meirelles creates excitement with his hand-held visuals despite a majority of the runtime just being of two men talking while sitting down. And Pryce and Hopkins each breathe life into the exercise while speaking three different languages to express the myriad emotions felt about past, present, and future. This is a real-time reckoning discovered under the auspices of God’s guiding hand—a tipping point unwittingly bolstered by a man doing his best to atone that’s suddenly agreed upon as being inevitable by the man who fought so hard against it. Evolution through empathy does sometimes prevail.
I definitely laughed out loud more than once throughout The Two Popes, but its true impact lies in its moments of intense emotional weight. These aren’t Gods discussing the fate of the world. They’re merely simple men attempting to find their place within it as mouthpieces for a Biblical doctrine some are too afraid to reinterpret to the times and others cavalier enough to do nothing but. So when they look within to acknowledge their own weaknesses and then look outward to forgive the other’s sins, it’s more than just words. If Benedict and Francis agree on nothing else but absolution and our ability to improve, it does prove enough. It’s through growth that we become better than our worst moments. Maybe Catholicism can be saved after all.
courtesy of Netflix / Peter Mountain