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Joe and Jorge’s Excellent Adventure: “The Two Popes”

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) was not, despite the title, a religious film, but a gritty, semi-documentary drama about kids in Rio’s slums. Mr. Meirelles’ new film, The Two Popes, is also not religious.

The film claims to be “inspired by true events,” which at its heart is a lie, and it clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on in this mysterious thing called the Roman Catholic Church. Or if it does know, dislikes it intensely.

Written by Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of two very fine (and very different) films, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, The Two Popes imagines a 2012 meeting between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). The cardinal has been summoned by the pope ostensibly to discuss the former’s resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. As it happens, before receiving the pope’s summons, the cardinal had already bought a plane ticket to Rome in order to urge Benedict to accept that resignation. Kismet?

Pope Benedict is well aware that Bergoglio finished second in the 2005 conclave voting that had elevated him to the papacy, and therein lies the gambit: the pope really wants to discover what sort of man his likely successor is and what effect a Papa Bergoglio might have on the legacy of Benedict’s papacy.

Mr. McCarten is a good at using dialog to reveal character, and the two actors – one, possibly the greatest of his generation (Hopkins is now 81); the other, a superb character actor (Pryce is 72) – are well directed by Mr. Meirelles, who favors close-up shots on one or both men, and the film can be fun to watch. There’s little else in movies more compelling that two fine actors delivering crisp dialog. The trouble is, the chatter between the two rarely makes sense.

McCarten wrote a book version of his screenplay for The Two Popes, and in the introduction to it makes clear he sees Catholicism (he is a nominal Catholic) purely in terms of left-liberal geopolitics. Nobody, according to McCarten, still believes the superstitious stuff the Church of Rome keeps on “selling,” pretending science hasn’t long since disproved it all, especially the Bible.

From this alone we might suspect McCarten prefers the “catholicism” of Francis to the “Catholicism” of Benedict. Indeed, he describes Benedict as a man “completely lacking the common touch;” a “reclusive theologian with no in-the-field experience;” a man for whom “change is more a sign of weakness than of strength.” Never mind that Joseph Ratzinger was a lifelong teacher and for five years an archbishop (in Munich). On the other hand, McCarten describes Francis as “fun-loving” and “charismatic” – just the sort of qualities in a pope that a fallen-away, liberal, “Irish-Catholic” New Zealander would wish.

In the beginning of this imagined meeting between the once and future popes, their exchanges are heated. By the end, Messrs. Meirelles and McCarten would have us believe the two clerics have become fast friends (news footage of the actual pope and pope emeritus conclude the film). Indeed, it’s the premise of The Two Popes that “Benedict” actually resigned to make way for “Bergoglio,” even to the point of suggesting the latter choose the name Francis when the time comes.

Again, this is an entirely fictitious get-together, based simply upon the facts that Cardinal Bergoglio finished second in the previous conclave and was elected in the conclave that followed Benedict’s resignation.

Mr. McCarten makes much in his book of Benedict’s 2019 letter on the abuse crisis – how it was, in effect, a rebuke of the “clericalism” excuse favored by Francis. Some of that critique is read back into Benedict’s dialog in the film (and twisted to explain his resignation) – that the enormity of the abuse crisis, and his complicity in it, alienated the elderly pope from God. He needs to resign and go on a more-or-less permanent retreat in order to recover God in silence.

One might actually be glad to see this cinematic Benedict go away. He’s a solitary, squinting, nasty, ghoulish man, whose main pleasure seems to be watching an Austrian TV series called Kommissar Rex, about a German Shepherd police dog. Sure, he’s a smart guy, but he’s not a man of the people! And he’s. . .(cringe) old! Enough about him . . .

            The Two Popes is really about Jorge Bergoglio. A substantial portion of the film, in which one senses Meirelles’ sensibility more than McCarten’s, takes place in flashbacks that recreate Bergoglio’s earlier life in Argentina – from his student days until this imagined trip to Rome and the kismet-like meeting with Benedict. These are the best scenes in the film and go some way in explaining the crucible in which Jorge Bergoglio was assayed.

The film’s climax takes place in the Sistine Chapel’s “Room of Tears,” where newly elected popes are vested before their first appearances on the balcony of St. Peter’s. After an impromptu lunch of pizza and orange soda, the two men hear one another’s confessions. This involves a protracted flashback in which the young Bergoglio (played by Juan Minjuin), then Jesuit provincial in Argentina, tries to build bridges (a big theme in the film) between the governing junta and his Jesuit brethren, which efforts – by his own account – failed miserably.

Our filmic Bergoglio is also horrified when Benedict tells him of his plan to resign. Popes don’t do that! The vehemence of Bergoglio’s protest is odd, given that as pope he has more than once suggested he might do the same.

This movie Benedict, about whom the film offers no flashbacks (other than to the end of his cardinalate immediately prior to his election as pope), confesses the sorry tale of having moved a sexually abusive priest from one posting to another. Bergoglio is shocked! Apparently, his hands are clean in such matters. The filmmakers conveniently ignore the various charges made against Bergoglio during his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Obviously, since his election as pope comprises only a few scenes at the end of the film, there’s no place in The Two Popes to detail the serial defenses Pope Francis has made of abusers (especially McCarrick) or the extent to which he has brought some of them (and their sympathizers) into his inner circle.

At its best, the film is reminiscent of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), co-written by the film’s two stars, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, a funny stream-of-dialog buddy movie that takes place entirely in a Manhattan restaurant. But I’m sorry to say The Two Popes is unfunny, boring, and pedantic. Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Pryce certainly have their moments. But, again with the exception of some of the flashback scenes, in the overall Meirelle’s film is intellectually claustrophobic – despite some lovely art direction that tries to open up the film – and seriously repetitive.

The film’s music is straight out of 1950’s-60’s Commedia all’italiana, and I half expected to see scenes of the principals tooling around Rome on Vespas.

Some have suggested that the film takes the Catholic faith “seriously,” but that’s true only if your view of the faith is formed by the notion that it’s high time – long past time – for the Church to cease believing in the old myths and accept the revelations of 21st century “science,” especially according to neo-Marxist economics and environmentalism. The Church taken seriously here is not the one that exists today (and has endured for 2000 years – except maybe in its pretty regalia) but a future church – one in which it acts as an NGO-like extension of the United Nations or maybe the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), with all the corruption, wheel-spinning, and anti-Christian ideology that implies.

            The Two Popes is a Francis lovefest along the lines of Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which was an even greater failure. Both films are stunning in their awfulness, and I’m amazed at the praise that has been heaped upon both of them.

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The Two Popes, which is rated PG-13 (for “sophistication” or maybe for scenes depicting fútbol?), is a Netflix project and opened in theaters this week – if you can find it. (I could not, and I live in the New York City metro area. Netflix kindly provided me with an online screener.) The film will premiere on the Netflix streaming service on December 22.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.