The Two Popes is a good-looking film. Director, Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten do a fine job attempting to render the internal features and external workings of two men, both popes, who “meet cute,” if contentious and friskily, in an attractive setting in a beautiful city; then clash, make up, and leave the audience feeling good and confident that happy endings are possible. If you think this sounds like a rom-com, you’re not wrong.
At one point in the film the emeritus pope, Benedict XVI, departs his private quarters in the Apostolic Palace through a wrong door. Before his minder can stop him, the former pontiff finds himself in rooms open to visitors to the Sistine Chapel. The assembled are stunned by the appearance of the actual pope. A mistake has been made but it is a good mistake, a gesture born of Benedict’s newly ignited interest in engaging with people and the material world, an outward sign of some kind of little conversion.
The ceiling’s bright azure should be the tip-off to suggest that manipulations are under way. The room is airy and aglow, but as anyone who has ever visited the Sistine Chapel without some special status knows, however, that the rooms are normally dimly lit, crowded, and annoyingly abuzz with hushed chatter of tightly packed throngs and busy with shout-whispered directives of Vatican security charged with herding packed galleries of tourists, pilgrims and art mavens through the rooms as expeditiously as possible. It is neither easy to pray nor feel the full holy force of the art under those conditions. One feels more power, there, than the glory.
The Two Popes offers audience an educated guess about what the emotional life of two pontiffs might be, an approximation of what a conclave is, and a hope-fueled scenario in which it is possible for popes to crave and obtain absolution for some of the most egregious sins imaginable. The filmmaker’s consideration of the two popes’ quests for reconciliation and absolution is the strongest aspect of the film, but mostly, The Two Popes is a billet doux for the special Jesuit pope who doesn’t want to wear the red shoes.
The theatrical release of the The Two Popes, in November, coincided (the same week!) with the Amazon Synod, the investigation of Bishop Richard Malone in Buffalo, NY and other stories that weren’t very good for Vatican Optics. The synod highlighted institutional Catholic Church misogyny with its teasing of the woman deacons issue, and the Malone investigation was a mess in more ways than can be explored in this short review. (The investigator, Vatican clergy sex abuse accessory Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wound up accused of raping an altar boy. Cardinal Dolan was supposed to go but for some reason Rome sent DiMarzio in his place to take the heat, or the perhaps, the fall.)
The film began to air on Netflix during the around the time ( Christmas season) news of a new spate of serial rapes committed by (deceased) Mexican Legionaries of Christ leader Marcial Maciel Degollado broke. Around the same time, the putative abolition of the pontifical secret was announced, and the resignation of the McCarrick friend and enabler Cardinal Angelo Sodano made news. The Two Popes seems to hope to invite audiences to consider that that popes being human sin, can be forgiven, and can be trusted to cleanse the temple. But it’s a push. Obviously, this coincidence was not planned, but Meirelles knows there is an audience of sentient, Catholics interested in a vision of a church that has not become a moral and political cesspool. It is clear from his interviews that Meirelle craves that experience also. He was enamoured of the current pontiff before he made the film.
I have believed from the time of Benedict’s resignation, that the bold and carefully calculated move, part strategy and part public relations maneuver, was seen as a way to address the exodus from the Catholic Church of Catholics living in western Europe and the Americas in the wake of the clergy sex abuse and financial scandals, as well as in reaction to Rome’s promulgation of misogyny and homophobia. The church may be (is) dying in western Europe and North America but it is still paying the bills for missions in regions where Catholicism is growing. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a way to push the reset button. The elevation of Bergoglio was a way to retire the man who had (likely on orders of his pope) allowed clergy sex to abuse to proliferate unchecked, and to repalce him with a warmer, more telegenic pontiff. The conversation about the benefits of elevating a Latin American was already in the air when Ratzinger was elevated.
When Ratzinger was elevated, he was the right pope to keep the theological football out of the hands of the post Vatican II Liberation Theologians and cardinals (e.g, Carlo Maria Martini) who were interested in debating such radical matters as ordaining women and allowing more priests to marry. But the Circle of Secrecy child sex trafficking, and money-laundering scandals —which broke just before Benedict XVI resigned —were shrinking the parts of the church that fork over the most cash. Ratzinger as CDF Prefect had dropped the ball on hundreds of sex crime cases. Keeping LGBTQ, divorced and remarried, and feminist Catholics in the pews tithing became an imperative. A pope who would be beloved was needed. McCarten and Meirelles got this part right.
There’s no way to know what Ratzinger and Bergoglio said to each other when they were alone in a room, but if he was at all compos mentis, Pope Benedict XVI was in accord with terms of his own almost unprecedented resignation, and it is likely that he had a reason other than elderly man’s fatigue for stepping down. Bergoglio had played both sides against the middle in the context of the “Dirty Wars” could, therefore be trusted to be determinedly moderate while retain his humble style. He could be trusted to enchant the liberal church while refraining from doing anything too substantive to move the magisterial needle. This rebranding of the papacy was sure to help (what Benedict XVI and John Paul II began to call) the “new evangelization” along. (“New evangelization” generally refers to modes for bringing baptized Catholics back into practice.) A “whom am I to judge?” pope might have better luck, the cardinals may have believed, than “God’s Rottweiler,” when it came to bringing disaffected and lapsed Catholics back into the fold.
Screenwriter McCarten and director Meirelles take a reverential course. To the film’s detriment, they treat Vatican child sex trafficking as if the depravity were not ongoing, and thy ignore both the misogyny and homophobia problems that plague the institutional Catholic church almost entirely. Ratzinger’s “Nazi Youth” membership, (beyond a quick “Nazi” characterization exclaimed by a football spectator in a bar) is not much incorporated. All this erasure helps to boost the rom-com radiance — It’s hard to root for Nazis and bigots in a story about love—but detracts from the thoughtful and expert handling of the theology the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Indeed Meirelles’ and McCarten’s fleshing out the biography of Jorge Bergoglio, without which the uncritical, saintly characterization of Bergoglio would be hard to take—and impossible to take seriously, redeems the film, and saves it from being full-on fluff.
Jorge Bergoglio was the Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the time of the U.S. backed military-led genocide led by Peronist dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. There are conflicting historical versions of the truth as it relates to Bergoglio’s conduct and situation in the context of “dirty wars,” but my sense is that the writer and director hit the mark in the way they imagine Bergoglio’s regrets and remorse. Jonathan Pryce’s performance (as Bergoglio) captures the torments and hope beautifully. Only a man within the very tight circle surrounding these two protagonists can know how accurate the particulars of The Two Popes are: how Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign came about, and how the voting in the conclave went, and how the banking scandals which rather immediately preceded Pope Benedict’s resignation figured in.
I’ve read a complaint or two about how dry the portrayal of Benedict XVI is. As one who very much enjoyed Josef Ratzinger’s writing while very much disliking his pontificate, I found it hard to believe the author of so much thoughtful, intelligent, impassioned and sometimes imaginative writing should be so lacking in dimension (as Meirielle’s Pope Benedict XVI seemed to be). I also found the good-pope/bad-pope construct one-dimensional. But such complexity is almost invariably absent from rom-coms! Pope meets prelate. Pope loses prelate. Pope helps elevate pope and the two popes wind up happily ever after in a world redolent with incense and white smoke and divine refulgence. That’s what the director and writer are going for in The Two Popes.
Overall, the actors’ performances are excellent, and the writing is good. However, as a Catholic writer and student of theology engaged, at present, in studying the criminal conduct of the institutional church, I found the film’s nostalgic preciousness distracting. What I have come to think of as the “Bells of St. Mary’s” factor, whereby a blanket of certain purity is thrown over the dark side of the Catholic Church — in this case, over the systematic child sex abuse, the succession of banking scandals, the hideous patriarchy, and punishing bigotry — detracts from what is useful and most true in the film. The smart choice to delve into Jorge Bergoglio’s experience as a Jesuit Superior during the “Dirty Wars” takes a step in the right direction, but the overall erasure prevents the filmmaker from going far enough with these truths. The director makes no secret of loving the church — but chauvinism is not love.
Revised, Brooklyn 1/3/20