Political Film Review #605


Popes are supposed to remain at the head of the Catholic Church until death. But Benedict XVI suddenly resigned in 2013, and Francis I took his place. The Two Popes provides an explanation within what is in part a biopic of Francis I with many flashbacks.

Filmviewers soon become aware that Bavarian Cardinal John Ratzinger (played by Anthony Hopkins) was not selected by a majority on the first ballot, on which Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) received a significant number of votes. A majority appears on the third vote for Ratzinger, who becomes Benedict XVI in 2005.

But the film actually begins with Bergoglio frustrated that his letters are unanswered. As we later learn, he has asked permission from Benedict XVI to resign his position as cardinal so that he can serve as a humble parish priest. He then flies to Rome to make a personal appeal. Benedict, however, refuses to answer the letters, and has almost simultaneously summoned him to Rome to discuss the matter. They meet at the pope’s luxurious summer palace, Castel Gandolfo (on Lake Albano south of Rome). The bulk of the film, minus flashbacks, consists of what screenwriter Anthony McCarten speculated that the two men discussed despite very different opinions about the Catholic faith (traditional versus modern) while being comical, logical, personal, and respectful. Bergoglio enjoys soccer and hugging people, but Benedict has no interest in soccer and initially rejects a hug, preferring to shake hands during their first meeting.

Underlying the discussion are two facts: (1) Catholic churches are losing parishioners, evidently because steadfast condemnation of abortion, divorce, and homosexuality has made the church seem irrelevant to modern times, perhaps prompting Bergoglio’s request to be demoted. (2) The church is riddled by sex scandals. Whereas some guilty priests are reassigned to other parishes, the other option is to fire them. When Bergoglio initially states his views, Benedict responds that he disagrees, though the difference is more nuanced than fundamental. Still, he continues to host Bergoglio, even after returning to Rome on an emergency. Bergoglio stays with Benedict to gain approval to his request. But Benedict refuses, at first claiming that his resignation as cardinal could be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the church, asking why he does not resign entirely if he feels that he can no longer serve as a representative of the church.

Then the truth emerges: Benedict wants to resign, as he says he is no longer in good health, though he implies that his goal of revitalizing the Catholic faith has failed due to changing times. But he will not step down if Bergoglio resigns as cardinal, creating a deadlock. Benedict next suggests that Bergoglio should become his successor, but he is not eager to take the position. At this point the two get biographically personal. Benedict admits that he was so interested in scholarly pursuits that he never really experienced life with ordinary people, a complete contrast with Bergoglio, whose calling as a down-to-earth priest in earlier years has occupied an earlier flashback (with Juan Minujín playing the part of the youthful Bergoglio). Bergoglio then reveals a dark past in yet another flashback during the 1976 Argentine military coup, when he sought to protect priests in his parish by currying favor with coup leaders. Bergoglio recalls that his efforts were not only futile but resulted in his being denounced after the coup ends. In short, he feels unworthy to become pope. They then commiserate together as if co-confessors and hug.

But Benedict XVI does resign. A vote is held, and Bergoglio is chosen. He selects the name Francis I and subsequently tours the world. Yet one day Benedict returns to the Vatican, and the two enjoy each other’s company, watching a soccer match. Despite their differences, they have bonded.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes has been nominated by the Political Film Society as best film exposé of 2019.  MH