I was eagerly awaiting the release of The Two Popes on Netflix. The choice of actors was brilliant, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. The story was intriguing. The movie lived up to its expectations.
Masterful actors inhabit a character so deeply that we forget the actor and become engrossed with the person and story being told. Hopkins and Pryce are masters. Many times during the movie I forgot that they were there. It was Benedict and Francis on the screen.
The movie is “inspired by true events”, a term I learned more about while working on my screenplay. It allows the writer to weave fiction with fact without fear of liability. Several articles have been written about the accuracy of the movie, including The Two Popes; what’s fact and what’s fiction from America Magazine. It’s helpful to know the basic facts behind the story. With this movie, though, it’s best to sit back and allow yourself to be immersed in the dialogue between the two protagonists. The writing portrays the human struggles of both popes while emphasizing their differences. And, the differences are hard to avoid.
The contrasting liturgical fashion tastes of the two popes became an instantly identifiable symbol of their different pastoral styles. Benedict’s love for traditional finery and red Prada shoes became a caricature to be mocked by liberals. (Guilty!) Yet, for most of the movie the two men are dressed simply. Two men, one a pope and one a future pope, talking to each other. The dialogue identifies the deeper differences, and I think this is where the movie shines.
Hopkins brilliantly portrays Benedict as a man who spent his entire adult life in an academic/theological bubble. There is an innate awkwardness about him. He tries to impress Francis (Pryce) with his piano skills, side-stepping topics of conversation that he knows nothing about. He eats by himself. He knows little about popular culture. He has few, if any, friends outside his clerical circles.
It is a sympathetic portrayal and one that is often used to defend the emeritus pope. Ah, but he was simply too sensitive. Too gentle. Too intellectual. Too much of an introvert to be loved by the masses.
Joseph Ratzinger truly was “God’s Rottweiler”. As head of the Doctrine of Faith, his attacks on liberal theologians, priests and religious were harsh and unjust. Punishments were meted out for anyone who dared question the doctrine of the church, especially her teachings on a male-only priesthood. In contrast, ecclesial sanctions were light or non-existent for sexual abusers.
Clericalism and its defence was at the heart of Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict. His was a narrow vision of church focused on black and white doctrine, clerical power and a mythical, holier church of the past. His lack of personal experience with “the world” was not a sign of contemplative holiness. It was a sign of a person sadly out of touch with the people he was called to serve. His liturgical style, over-the top vestments surrounded by similarly dressed attendants, emphasized to the great-unwashed in the pews their great-unwashedness.
The movie scenes that stayed with me the most, were the close-ups on Francis while he listens to Benedict bearing his soul. Pryce looks piercingly into Hopkins’ eyes. Honest compassion and confusion mingle on his face. He is trying to understand this man, so unlike himself.
Francis, of course, is not perfect. The controversies around his actions as Jesuit Provincial during the Dirty War years in Argentina still haunt his legacy. The movie shows that they still haunt the man. What does he do? He tries to make reparation with his life. He eschews clerical luxuries to live and work closer to those he served. In Argentina, as Archbishop, it was the slums. In Rome, it is Santa Marta where he can dine and worship with residents and visitors alike. He speaks unceasingly of mercy, compassion and social justice and matches his actions to his words.
Two Popes. Two men with two contrasting visions of church, talking and trying to understand each other. Perhaps, the simple lesson to take from this movie is this.
Two men talking and trying to understand each other.