SDG Reviews ‘The Two Popes’: Papal Bull Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce

Are savvy performances enough to save a caricature pitting God’s Rottweiler against the People’s Pope?

(photo: Register Files)

For a Catholic critic — or at least for this Catholic critic — a movie like The Two Popes presents a number of temptations.

There is the temptation, first of all, to review the movie the way the blog Bad Astronomy used to review movies like Armageddon, cataloging technical or factual inaccuracies both minor and vast.

Among the more glaring howlers, for example, is the considerable conflict during a 2012 meeting between Anthony Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, over whether Cardinal Bergoglio’s motivation in submitting his resignation prematurely, before turning 75, is an act of protest against the conservatism of Benedict’s papacy. Out of concern to avoid the appearance of protest, Benedict refuses to accept the resignation.

Notably, screenwriter Anthony McCarten, adapting his own stage play The Pope, is well aware that this is nonsense. In his nonfiction book The Two Popes: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, McCarten correctly notes that Cardinal Bergoglio was 75 in 2011 when he submitted his resignation as required by canon law — and that it is entirely customary for such resignations to stay on the pope’s desk for months or longer before being officially accepted.

So there was no possible hint of protest or concern of such; Cardinal Bergoglio’s age in 2012 has been fictionalized for the sake of imaginary conflict. (I have a hunch that when he wrote the stage play McCarten may have been confused by the five-year gap between the age of mandatory episcopal resignation, 75, and the age at which cardinals are no longer eligible to participate in papal conclaves, 80. In the film, though, he clearly knows what he’s doing.)

Another critical temptation is to debunk the film’s schematic interpretation of its present and future popes as embodiments of, respectively, hidebound conservatism and enlightened progressivism, instead emphasizing the commonality and continuity between them.

Such a response could take the form of a familiar genre of Catholic apologetic commentary that consists of cataloging passages in the writings of Benedict that some might find surprisingly progressive, as well as notably traditional themes in the writings of Francis.

For example, a casual viewer of The Two Popes might be left with the impression that the future Francis cares about the poor and the environment while Benedict cares about tradition and rules. I could easily fill the space of many reviews rebutting that impression with citations from Benedict’s advocacy for the poor, the rights of migrants and refugees and environmental concerns.

To catalog factual inaccuracies, or the substantial convergence of Benedict and Francis, are useful and important undertakings, but cataloging is not film criticism.

The Two Popes is historical fiction, but still fiction. Hopkins and Pryce are playing characters engaged in imaginary conversations, not reenacting history. To press historical figures in a work of fiction into symbolic service as embodiments of ideas or principles, even in tension with their real views, can be legitimate in principle.

In its defense, the debate dramatized in the film reflects a real conflict playing out every day in parishes, seminaries and Catholic social media venues. The real Benedict was never the “conservative,” nor the real Bergoglio the “progressive,” that the film makes them — but the types are real enough, and I’ve met them both (both types, I mean).

After an unendurably shrill quarrel around the 30-minute mark that ends with Benedict snapping, “I don’t agree with anything you say,” the dialogue — set partly at the Pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and partly in a remarkable set recreating the Sistine Chapel — becomes more thoughtful, fitfully moving and occasionally even profound, elevated by the tension between its two immensely gifted stars.

Hopkins, investing Benedict with tragic dignity and quiet self-awareness, has the more interesting performance. He gets better lines, too. “There’s a saying: God always corrects one pope by presenting the world with another pope. I should like to see my correction.”

Pryce’s Bergoglio, of course, is horrified by Benedict’s intention to resign. “Christ did not come down from the cross,” he insists. In a way, despite their unreconciled differences, each becomes the advocate for the other’s papacy.

On a deeper level, Cardinal Bergoglio is conflicted over what he sees as mistakes during his tenure as provincial superior of the Jesuit order in the 1970s during Argentina’s Dirty War, when two of his priests were abducted and tortured for months.

Rather than criticizing the military junta, he remained silent, trying to work behind the scenes to protect his priests — a strategy that led to accusations of complicity. (Less plausibly, the film seems to couch the cardinal’s genuine opposition to liberation theology and Marxism as part of this strategic attempt to pacify junta authorities.)

This chapter in Bergoglio’s life is dramatized in flashbacks with Argentinian actor Juan Minujín playing the younger Bergoglio. Notably, Benedict gets no such flashbacks; from his confession that he “sinned” in his youth “by not having the courage to taste of life itself,” instead hiding in books and study, perhaps we’re meant to gather that there was nothing to tell. On the other hand, the “Nazi” slur is twice thrown at Benedict by random Italians, and while Cardinal Bergoglio registers dissent from this, the slur is never answered.

Fictionalizing the views and actions of real-life figures for the sake of drama can be defensible, but there are limits. A drama about, say, George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid would probably have to acknowledge in some way how he struggled with “the vision thing.” To unironically depict him as a wonky Elizabeth Warren-like candidate with detailed plans for everything would probably be a bridge too far.

The very first contrast that The Two Popes draws between its title characters, at the 2005 papal conclave after the death of Pope St. John Paul II, is the proposition that Cardinal Bergoglio, who does not want to be pope, is therefore worthy of the office, while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who does desire the papacy, is unworthy.

This is the first plank in the movie’s case for Benedict XVI as a pope rejected by God. When Benedict begins talking to Bergoglio about his plans to resign, he describes seeing smoke from snuffed candles trail downward, “like the rejected sacrifices of Cain.” In case that’s not cinematic enough, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) throws in a quick clip of lightning striking the Vatican during Benedict’s papacy.

It would be hard to imagine a single creative choice more centrally false to Ratzinger’s character than the claim that he was ambitious for the papacy — and, once again, to correct the record one need look no further than McCarten’s own book, notably the chapter accurately titled “The Reluctant Pope”!

A lifelong academic and scholar, Ratzinger has always been happiest in study, and his time of service under John Paul II as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a burden he looked forward to setting aside, not a stepping stone to higher office.

Three times over the course of more than a decade he asked to resign and be allowed to go back to writing in solitude, or perhaps to live out his days in the Vatican Archives. John Paul not only refused him each time, but continued to “reward” him with further responsibility.

McCarten himself repeatedly uses “reward” just like that, in ironic scare quotes, stressing just how little Ratzinger wanted any of this. It’s as if he set out to write the definitive rebuttal of his own drama. (Perhaps someone should write a story called The Two McCartens.)

This is not, for me, mere fact-checking. Since I’m obviously not remotely unbiased, let me put my cards on the table: While I’m not an uncritical fan of any of the three popes of my adult life, in a real and important sense I love and admire each of them, both for the real continuity among them and also for their individual contributions. (My problems with each of them, likewise, include both particular and shared issues.)

It would be impossible to overstate the foundational importance of Ratzinger’s thought for me since I began studying Catholic theology nearly 30 years ago. The suppleness of his intellectual engagement with modernity and postmodernity has contributed more than any other Catholic thinker to the set of intellectual tools I bring to thinking about what it means to be Catholic today.

To see Hopkins as Ratzinger barking, “Change is compromise,” as if he were some reactionary neo-scholastic manualist standing athwart Vatican II yelling “Stop,” is almost physically painful for me.

The relatively hagiographic portrayal of Jorge Bergoglio is less grating, at least until the last minutes as the film becomes a sort of infomercial, complete with rock soundtrack, burnishing Pope Francis’ image as a crusader and reformer.

At one point when Pope Benedict asks Cardinal Bergoglio what he would do with his papacy, the cardinal suggests cleaning up the Vatican Bank. “Good luck with that,” Benedict smiles wryly. I’d like to think that’s a subtle nod to the disappointments of Francis’ papacy in this area.

Toward the end, as the Pope and the cardinal each confess to the other, Benedict confesses that he “should have known” about the predatory crimes of Father Marcial Maciel, the notorious Mexican priest and the founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. Though the sound mix drops his voice for part of the confession, the implication is that Cardinal Ratzinger did nothing.

“You forgot to love the people you were meant to protect,” Francis charges, and Benedict, agreeing, asks for absolution.

The horrific reality is that no pope has ever responded effectively to clerical sex abuse. After the neglect of John Paul II’s papacy, Benedict was a relative improvement, but he was too timid and too concerned with addressing abuse quietly.

That said, even as CDF head Cardinal Ratzinger was actively concerned about Father Maciel, but the priest was powerful and protected by John Paul II and other powerful men in the Curia. (Perhaps Benedict is here dramatically conflated with John Paul II and apologizes on his behalf.) As pope, Benedict removed Father Maciel from leadership in 2006, but it was too little, too late. Francis’ leadership, both as archbishop and as pope, has likewise been marked by myopia and blunders in this area.

Despite occasional effective moments, The Two Popes is undermined by the same penchant for Wikipedia-like biography and oversimplified caricature marking McCarten’s other biographical screenplays, The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody.

McCarten has been extraordinarily fortunate in the casting of his subjects over the years, and any of these films are almost worth seeing for the performances alone.

Still, what Roger Ebert wrote about Memoirs of a Geisha applies to all of these films: The more you know about the subject matter and movies, the less you are likely to enjoy them.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Caveat Spectator: Thematic content and some violent images. Teens and up.