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On “The Two Popes, truth and love”

Originally Appeared in : Vol. 100 No. 01

I was intrigued by the announcement that a new film—<i>The Two Popes</i>, depicting the Papal transition from Benedict XVI to Francis in 2013—would be released in some theaters and eventually on Netflix before the end of 2019.

The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody), and starrs Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce (Evita) as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis).

The trailers were beautifully filmed, featuring two of the greatest actors of our time, each bearing a striking resemblance to his character and both giving riveting performances.

Because its theatrical release in November was very limited, I had to wait until December 20 to view The Two Popes on Netflix. By then I had watched various interviews and read differing reviews of the film. I recognized that its genre is “historical fiction”—which I enjoy as long as it is plausible, as I find The Crown to be. Like that ongoing masterpiece dramatizing the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Two Popes is “based on true [historical] events,” with many scenes portraying what might plausibly have been said by the characters in private, but is not billed as “a true story.”

Neither The Two Popes nor The Crown claims to be a documentary. Clearly recognizing the genre (historical fiction) of these productions can help audiences appreciate them all the more and evaluate them more justly.

The Two Popes is based on the following historical facts: 1) that after the death of Pope Saint John Paul II in 2005, the cardinals in conclave elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new Bishop of Rome, as Benedict XVI, on the third ballot; 2) that many sources indicate that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, received the second largest number of votes on at least the first and second ballots; 3) that the styles as well as their personalities and nationalities of the two men appear to be in stark contrast; 4) and that although Cardinal Bergoglio had turned 75 and submitted his letter of resignation from the See of Buenos Aires to Pope Benedict in 2011, as required by canon law, it had not yet been accepted when the pope resigned on February 28, 2013.

Based on these facts, McCarten wrote a play, The Pope, on which his screenplay for the movie The Two Popes is based, that asks the question, “What if the two men had met sometime in 2012, and if they had, what might have transpired?” Note again that neither the play nor the film makes any claim that such a meeting actually happened.

The film begins in 2012, with Cardinal Bergoglio, in his familiar and easy-going way, teasing his local postmaster about his stamps not working, because he has written to the pope and not yet received a reply. Another party to the conversation surmises that the letters contained his request to retire and begs him not to. But he replies that he has made up his mind and has already booked a flight to Rome, whereupon she hands him a letter the postmaster had entrusted to her, containing an invitation from the pope Benedict to the cardinal inviting him to Rome to discuss the matter in person.

To make a long and multi-layered story short, the two men meet at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, a more private venue that the Vatican. During a walk in the gardens, their differences in temperament and pastoral practice become evident. Each man represents and embodies a specific virtue: Benedict, the truth; Bergoglio, charity. They depart in opposite directions, to rest until supper— which they eat separately in adjoining rooms. The chill between them begins to thaw when the pope joins the cardinal for a more informal chat, during which each tries to connect with the other, with some success. They agree to continue the conversation the next day, but the pope is urgently summoned back to the Vatican when Gianluigi Nuzzi’s bombshell of a book, Sua Santità: Le Carte Segrete di Benedetto XVI (“His Holiness: The Secret Letters of Benedict XVI”), based on the Vatileaks, is released.

Only the next morning is the pope free to resume his conversation with the cardinal—in the Sistine Chapel.

Again, Bergoglio asks permission to retire and Benedict shocks him by refusing, revealing that he had decided to resign he papacy, but had feared that Bergoglio would be elected to succeed him. Now that the pope has come to know the cardinal better, he has discerned that it is time for him to resign and accepts the possibility that Cardinal Bergoglio could succeed him as “my correction.” There are two moving scenes in which each confesses to each other. The audience learns, partly through flashbacks, what each considers his greatest pastoral failure, eliciting sympathy from the audience for both.

The rest is history. Benedict did resign and Bergoglio was elected Pope, taking the name “Francis.” The two men reportedly enjoy a friendly relationship, but their respective “fans” do not seem to enjoy the same. As Phyllis Zagano put it in her review of the film in the National Catholic Reporter, “Pope and future pope. The one is an eminent theologian, cerebral and rigid. The other is an affable pastor, interested in change but not in compromise. Each is rather likeable, in his own way. They discuss. They disagree. They agree. By the time the credits have rolled, they seem to have moved a tad closer.”

Would that their respective camps may do the same in 2020, recalling that “while truth is vital, without love, it is unbearable,” as Bergoglio paraphrases Benedict’s encyclical Vertiatem in Caritate, 30, to the pope who wrote it.

Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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