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Pope fiction: a new film could entrench myths about Benedict and Francis

Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Francis in The Two Popes

An Oscar-tipped film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce may reinforce popular misconceptions about Benedict and Francis

The world premiere of The Two Popes, a film directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten, took place at the Telluride Film Festival last week. It stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis.

The trailer has dropped, too, ahead of the film’s limited theatrical roll-out in late November (with an eye to Oscars), and its wider release on Netflix on December 20.

The promo begins with Hopkins’s Benedict at an upright piano in a shadowy study apparently meant to be somewhere inside the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. He plays perhaps a bar and a half of a brooding melody before interrupting himself, as though he has seized upon a thought. The scene cuts to Benedict leaning in and asking an interlocutor (Pryce’s Cardinal Bergoglio, it turns out): “Do you know the Beatles?”

The answer comes, “Yes, I know who they are,” and to prove it, Bergoglio names Eleanor Rigby.

“Who?” Pope Benedict asks, “I don’t know her.”

Bergoglio suggests Yellow Submarine and poorly reproduces the melody.

“‘Yellow submarine?’ That’s silly. That’s very funny,” says Benedict, apparently still unaware he’s been given another famous Beatles song title. He turns back to the piano, and the scene fades as Hopkins’s voice is heard saying, “You’ve been one of my harshest critics”, as Bergoglio, clad in a cardinal’s black cassock, enters the Sistine Chapel alone.

“The way you live is a criticism,” Benedict says, the scene now shifted to a tea table in a bright garden, impeccably manicured. To which Bergoglio replies: “You don’t like my shoes?” His shoes are black with one shoelace undone, in contrast to Benedict’s gleaming red footwear.

There is a quick cut to the Sant’uffizio gate and cameras flashing on Bergoglio making his way into the Vatican. Then another quick cut to Buenos Aires, we suppose, with a smiling Cardinal Bergoglio riding a bicycle through the teeming streets, the wind in his hair.

“You think you know better,” Benedict is heard to say, over a series of shots from the city scene to the garden, to the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica at the moment he first appeared as pope, then back to the study, and Benedict still reigning, but slouched in a chair and visibly tired.

“You know?” Benedict says to Bergoglio, seated across a small round table, “the hardest thing is to listen, to hear his voice – God’s voice.”

Then we see banners unfurling over the loggia, and Bergoglio exulting at a goal in a football match between Argentina and Ecuador, and more fast cuts, with the song Cuando tenga la tierra playing over the sequence, and a circling close-up of Bergoglio alone in the Sistine Chapel.

“You know,” Benedict is heard to say, again off-camera, before cutting to the pair at a table in the palace, “there’s a saying: ‘God always corrects one pope by presenting the world with another pope.’ I should – I’d like to see my correction.”

From the musical references – Eleanor Rigby is the title character in a song about “all the lonely people”, and Father McKenzie, who sits in his rectory, “Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear”, while Yellow Submarine is a metaphor for our common home, and “Cuando tenga la tierra” is a famous Argentine folk anthem – to the business about the shoes, the whole treatment seems superficial.

That said, this is clearly a film that has a highly talented director at the height of his powers, an able screenwriter very much in his groove, and a cast led by actors among the greatest of the last two generations (not to mention a marketing department worth every penny).

But the question is: is any of it true?

The film is based on a book, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, also written by screenwriter McCarten, as an expansion of a play he wrote for the stage: The Pope, which played in England this year in late spring and into early Summer. Charles Collins, Crux’s managing editor, saw the play and reviewed it, explaining that it “imagines the relationship between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio” in the period before Benedict’s resignation and Bergoglio’s election.

The characters were developed unevenly, in Collins’s view, with Benedict getting a sympathetic but critical treatment that captured his discomfort in the papacy and his increasing frustration with the office and its burdens. Bergoglio, on the other hand, “seems more a reflection of the author’s views of what a liberal vision of the Church could look like”.

I asked Collins whether he thought the problems could be overcome in the cinematic telling. “Yes,” he replied, though “nothing in the trailer leads me to believe they have.”

The summary on the film’s IMDb page describes it as the story of “the traditionalist Pope Benedict and the reformist future Pope Francis” who “must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church”. The trailer says the story is “inspired by true events”, but the impression one garners is of a story inspired by headlines and mainstream narrative. The Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (whose credits include City of God and The Constant Gardener) has said that the film is “about tolerance and learning to listen to one another”, while Pryce told Variety that it is basically “two old men talking about politics and morality”.

To the extent it assumes that Benedict was a rigid doctrinal hardliner and hide-bound traditionalist, while Bergoglio was a freewheeling pastor and would-be revolutionary, Church-watchers will smile. The project of the man who would become Benedict XVI was, in fact, to push the theological envelope. Even after the first blush of enthusiasm in the conciliar period had subsided, Joseph Ratzinger came into his official role as “doctrinal enforcer” under Pope John Paul II, who brought him to the Vatican because he knew that would be reticent to pull the trigger.

Pope Francis does not have opposite theological leanings, so much as he has little interest in theology, except as a tool of ecclesiastical policy. Laudato si’, Francis’s “environmental encyclical”, may be read as a practical, pastoral application of Benedict’s theological reflections on stewardship and care for creation. Benedict himself oversaw several Vatican stewardship initiatives on his watch, as well: he installed solar panels on Paul VI Hall and sought to erase the Vatican’s carbon footprint with a reforesting project in Hungary.

Francis is often (and rightly) praised for his media-friendliness and personal affability, especially with children and particularly rowdy ones. However, we should not overlook Benedict’s catechetical acumen with children and young people. Indeed, it inspired two books, Friendship with Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI Talks to Children about their First Holy Communion and Be Saints! An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI, both conceived and illustrated by Long Island-based artist Ann Engelhart.

Amy Welborn, who edited the volumes, told me that in Friendship with Jesus, “Benedict takes these questions that children ask – for example, ‘what happens to the bread and wine?’ – and answers them in a way that clearly recognises where the kids are, but provides depth and substance.” His answers, she said, are “simple, but not simplistic”. When it comes to Be Saints!, she added, “Benedict is deeply cognisant of the life experience” of his audience, and “encourages them to live lives of sanctity”. Benedict presents what is, in her view, “a winning combination of pastoral sensitivities and deep theological understanding”.

But back to the trailer. What are we to make of that hackneyed business about the shoes?

Benedict wore the red shoes almost as a reminder to himself of the office into which he had come, while Pope Francis kept wearing his old shoes because he has a friend in Argentina who has made and repaired his shoes for 40 years. To the extent that the contrast in footwear is telling of anything, it is of the ways in which both men are uncomfortable with the office. What effect their discomfort with the office has on their conduct of it would be interesting to explore.

The truth is that even in their approach to serious matters, Francis and Benedict have much in common.

In his address to participants at the meeting on child protection at the Vatican this past February, Pope Francis spent a dozen paragraphs explaining how child abuse is a global problem and a scourge on society generally, before he mentioned that it is one afflicting the Church. In his own notes on the subject, Benedict argued that the root cause of the crisis is the eclipse of God and the loss of faith, and offered the “Revolution of ’68” as characteristic of that eclipse. Both men have been unwilling to say precisely what they know about the extent of clerical corruption or even to offer detailed explanations of their decisions in regard to the crisis. Both have called on the faithful to pray more in response to the scandals.

If you look behind the headlines, there is no lack of remarkable similarities between Francis and Benedict, not only of broad outlook and substance but even of style.

Still, The Two Popes is going to be interesting as an exercise in wish fulfilment, much as The West Wing was for many Americans of the late 1990s. Perhaps it should have been framed as satire, but that ship has sailed. In any case, it stars Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce: two actors this movie buff would pay to watch as they read the phone book. Netflix can have my money.

Christopher Altieri is the Catholic Herald’s Rome bureau chief