It is no secret that our mainstream culture no longer seems to understand or value religion. Most depictions or attempts to explain it are reduced to mere sentimentality, and this is particularly true whenever there is a liberal treatment of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. It isn’t only the simplistic emotionalism of the artists grappling with the material that is the problem but also their urge to reduce religion to political doctrines that are inevitably (and wrongly!) connected to various secular ideologies. This analysis encapsulates the main issue with the new film, “The Two Popes” (2019), available now on Netflix.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles, who is known for such films as, “City of God” (2002) and “The Constant Gardener” (2005), “The Two Popes” aims to present two different theological and spiritual approaches to the papacy. Meirelles directs a script written by Anthony McCarten, which presents a series of dialogues between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The time during which the film takes place is divided into three parts: the death in 2005 of the pontiff Saint John Paul II, the subsequent election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, and Benedict’s resignation and the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope Francis.
The film’s opening titles tell us that what follows was inspired by true events. This is a correct statement in one sense only—the actual existence of two men known as Benedict XVI and Francis. Almost all of the scenes (especially dialogues between the two popes) are made up in more ways than one. I was hardly surprised to see Ratzinger portrayed in a negative light, whereas Bergoglio is presented as the savior of mater ecclesia. Ratzinger is portrayed as a dull, dry theologian and academic, who doesn’t smile and has no clue how to connect with people. He doesn’t know about popular music, wants to converse only in Latin, and what’s worse, he doesn’t like soccer!
“You’re very popular,” says Ratzinger to Bergoglio.
“I just try to be myself,” says Bergoglio humbly.
“Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” Ratzinger replies in a way that suggests childish envy. This alone is enough to make the viewer skeptical, as if someone like Ratzinger would suffer from such a psychological ailment, and even if he did, we have no actual evidence of it.
By contrast, Bergoglio is more social, knows how to connect with people, his Argentinian community calls him Jorge, he knows how to tango, is very affectionate, has a great sense of humor, doesn’t like the pomp of the Catholic Church, and dresses in modest clerical garb, not to mention, he wears simple, plain, black shoes. Ratzinger, by contrast, wears those darn red shoes, which are too ostentatious and conspicuous.
None of these details is on its face untrue. Ratzinger is more reserved, his charism is more theological than pastoral, and it is expressed in his gift for beautiful philosophical and theological expression in the myriad of books he has written over the decades. Bergoglio does seem more outgoing and easy going, which of course, is what people like. The issue in the film is that the writer, McCarten, defines the Catholic Church on the basis of these two popes’ personalities rather than doctrine. It is as if McCarten is saying that unless a pope can have a beer with the people, he’s not worthy of being a pope. We need a pope who is fun, not some stodgy German, who talks about theology all day long!
The filmmakers take a huge liberty by suggesting that Bergoglio met with Benedict in 2012 to ask for his resignation, which never happened. On top of it, the events are completely fictional in the assertion that Benedict confided in Bergoglio about his spiritual struggles and how he no longer wishes to “play this role” of Pope.
All of this could be forgiven but what makes the film particularly irritating and anger-inducing is when the two men confess sins to each other. Bergoglio confesses his failure to give support to his fellow Jesuits during the political unrest and violence in Argentina in the 1970s. Ratzinger, by turn, becomes visibly angry when he begins to confess his own sins, but we never know what they are. The voice is drowned out and we cannot hear what he is saying. We are only left with with a picture of Bergoglio demonstrating visible shock on his face. As the sound begins to return, we get a glimpse of what Ratzinger may have been talking about, namely the sexual abuse of boys enacted by Marcial Maciel, a founder of Legionaries of Christ. The weird part is that Bergoglio simply stands up and begins to blame Ratzinger for the alleged neglect in addressing this situation. No ordained priest would do such a thing. Rather, he would absolve the penitent of his sins.
This fiction that Ratzinger never did anything to address the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is absurd. As a prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, he changed the canon law practices and procedures, which made it possible to remove the priests who were abusing children and seminarians. As Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has met with victims of sexual abuse, and Francis has never done that. Not only that, but Francis has never addressed the accusation of Archbishop Vigano or the cover ups and defenses of many cardinals, most notably, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick who engaged in decades-long abuse of seminarians.
The fact that most of the events in the film are simply untrue renders the aesthetic analysis of the film almost impossible. Meirelles creates a beautiful cinematic effect and the photography is reminiscent of his wonderfully brutal and mystical, “The Constant Gardener.” But given the fact that the script is nothing but lies, all that cinematic mysticism is useless and empty. It is nothing more than a piece of propaganda that underscores the narrative of “Benedict Bad, Francis Good.” As such, the performances of such brilliant actors—Hopkins and Pryce—are drowned out, much like that phony confession of Benedict. Both actors are only working with what they are given, namely an incredibly simplistic, two-dimensional, and untrue script.
The film really isn’t about the two popes, but about one—Francis. Benedict is only used as a vehicle and a way to portray Francis as the savior of the Catholic Church. Even the election of Francis is met with applause by the entire college of Cardinals, as opposed to the ominous and reluctant election of Benedict. Francis is a hero and Benedict is a villain, as if both men are in a pseudo-theological cartoon—cheap and silly drawings in a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet or Jack Chick fundamentalist comics.
In the hands of a serious filmmaker or student of theology, the subject matter of this film might have been a truly fruitful exploration. There are certainly political implications inherent in any papacy and the doctrinal distinctions between Benedict and Francis are multi-faceted subjects that touch not only on the meaning of organized religion, but most importantly on questions of faith and love. As Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God’s love is fundamental for our lives, and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are.”
At the core of the Christian faith is an encounter, both with Christ and with people. Encounter also involves a continuous presence of dialogue with God and His people. In his book, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (1993), Ratzinger writes that the “first element” of any dialogue is “listening.” This is because
What takes place is an event of opening, of becoming open to the reality of other things and people. We need to realize what an art it is to be able to listen attentively. Listening is not a skill, like working a machine, but a capacity simply to be which puts in requisition the whole person. To listen means to know and acknowledge another and to allow him to step into the realm of one’s own “I.”
Sadly, the makers of The Two Popes did not understand the metaphysical aspect of an encounter. They did not listen. If they did, their film would have been a very different one—perhaps one that is concerned with the interior lives both of Benedict and Francis. It would have shown the papacy and the priesthood as a vocation, and not a battle of competing two-dimensional personalities. Most importantly, it would have shown the meaning of faith.