An OC Catholic film review

By James Day     12/17/2019

“Benedict to resign? Wonder what’s in store for the Church.” This text from my brother greeted me on the morning of February 11, 2013. It was a Monday, two days before Ash Wednesday. And it was true. Pope Benedict XVI was abdicating the papacy, the first to voluntarily step down since Pope Saint Celestine V in 1294. It was hard to comprehend then, and still remains difficult to understand six years later. 

Now, Netflix presents “The Two Popes,” a sumptuously photographed drama featuring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. While based on the actual events of Benedict’s resignation and Francis’s election, the film centers around a fictional conversation between Benedict and Bergoglio that takes place in and around the Vatican Gardens. The film was directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, best known for his 2002 film, “City of God,” and “The Constant Gardener” from 2005. 

Anthony McCarten, the screenwriter behind the recent hits “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” wrote the screenplay inspired by his nonfiction book, “The Pope,” and stage play of the same name. Raised Catholic, McCarten was taken with the idea of two popes living in the Vatican at the same time, while standing in Saint Peter’s Square watching Pope Francis.   

McCarten spoke with Orange County Catholic in the weeks leading up to the release of “The Two Popes” on why he wanted to tell this story. 

“Why did Benedict, the most traditional pope of the modern era, do the most untraditional thing imaginable?” McCarten asks rhetorically. Benedict cited advancing age and poor health, “usually an asset to a pope, in that it re-enacts — for all to see — Christ’s own suffering on the cross,” McCarten says. One only needs to rewatch the footage of a dying Pope John Paul II in his final appearances being unable to speak. 

“This [story] tells the tale of two popes, both possessed of tremendous and inalienable authority; an odd couple whose destinies converged and who influenced each other profoundly,” McCarten says. “Let us consider Francis first, or as we will first encounter him, Cardinal Bergoglio. He’s a man with the common touch. A natural man of the people. Once had a girlfriend. Has worked as a bouncer at a tango club. An ardent fan of football.” 

On the opposite side, there’s Benedict, “an intellectual German, suspicious of humor. A reclusive theologian who lacks in-the-field experience. Could not tell Arsenal from Real Madrid. Has never, to our knowledge, spoken a romantic word to another soul.”  

While this is very much a popular reading of both men, many who discovered the faith or reverted to it under Benedict may take issue with this portrayal of Benedict XVI. “I am not a man who constantly thinks up jokes,” Benedict himself once admitted. “But I think it is very important to be able to see the humorous side of life and its joyful dimension. To not take everything too tragically.” 

The specter of scandals and a Vatican in crisis hangs over the events in “The Two Popes.” McCarten sees the current moment as pivotal, both for the Church and the world. “It is a fascinating hinge-moment in the life of an institution whose flame has now burned two thousand years,” he says. “How it copes with these challenges will, in large part, decide its future in the decades ahead.” 

The film was shot in Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, and Italy. While it joins a number of films that have featured Francis as a character — such as the documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” and another Netflix production, “Call Me Francis” — this is the first to depict Pope Benedict in a narrative film. Early reviews of “The Two Popes” from secular outlets, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, are positive. Particular praise is placed on the acting strengths of Hopkins and Pryce. 

“The Two Popes” opened for a limited release in theatres on Nov.  27. It will stream on Netflix beginning Dec. 20.