“The Two Popes:” check the facts

One afternoon over Christmas break, my sister Lillian sat down in the living room and watched “The Two Popes” on her phone’s Netflix app. I was sitting near her for the greater part of her watch and distinctly remember that she had a bit of a bone to pick with the movie upon finishing it. When I finally got around to watching “The Two Popes,” I really enjoyed it, I had no idea why she had a problem with it. So, like the responsible “journalist” I am, I called Lil and asked her what exactly had bothered her about such a well-made movie. In short, as a viewer, she enjoyed the dramatic narrative, but as devout Catholic, she was not buying a lot of what the narrative was selling.

Inspired by a true story, “The Two Popes,” directed by Fernando Meirelles, is adapted from Anthony McCartens play “The Pope.” It takes place primarily in Vatican City as Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, tries to convince Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Price, who in 2013 becomes Pope Francis, to reconsider his decision to resign as archbishop as he shares his own plans to resign from the papacy. The film attempts to portray the two men as diametrically opposing forces in the church, with Benedict representing the old Catholic establishment and Francis as a new more inclusive type of Catholicism. However, the film shows the two popes bridging these ideological differences and strives to play the two characters simply as men, which was a refreshing way to see two people who have occupied arguably the most important religious leadership position in the world. As a Catholic, I see the pope as an almost legendary figure, he may be El Papa but he is also a head of state, a wielder of papal supremacy, not as a man with feelings and humanity just like any parishioner at my local church. Most of the credit for this portrayal of the popes goes to Pryce and Hopkins who really showcase their status as acting legends with this picture. Both Oscar-nominated for “The Two Popes” this year, they truly anchor the story in two exceptional character studies. The movie is mostly based on their performances and boy do they shine. I watched it and truly enjoyed it. 

My sister Lillian is much more knowledgeable when it comes to Catholic history and dogma. I called her last night and we spoke for about 20 minutes while she made hash browns and sticky rice in her dorm. “[The Two Popes is] a good movie, and a good story” she stated, but had a lot to say about the way the McCarten’s story characterized the two pontiffs. “They’re not as polarized as the film makes them out to be,” she said. Francis is not the beacon of liberalism that the film paints him as, and Benedict is not some curmudgeonly old timer. Emphasizing their disagreements makes for a dramatic story but is not true to life. Most of the things that Francis is hailed for, such as being a friend of the poor and fighting for environmental justice, have been core parts of the Pope’s mission since the ‘70s. Lillian also explained how many of the events in the film are completely fictionalized, and I fact-checked this myself after I spoke with her. “They never spent that much time together, [Cardinal Bergoglio] never flew to Rome to hand in his resignation papers,” which is the event most of the film revolves around, “he just put them in the mail.” Lillian also leveled criticism against the portrayal of Benedict in particular, disapproving of the film characterizing him as a staunchly conservative and almost mean old man. “Some of the things Benedict says are completely out of character” she said. “I spoke with Cardinal Zen [of Hong Kong, who recently spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, where Lillian attends] and he described Pope Benedict as a very sweet old man.” Ultimately she agreed with me that it was a good film, if not a flawed one in the respects she discussed. I asked if such a movie was a good thing to have out in the world. Is it important to try to endear the Popes to the public like this, seeing them play piano, drink Orange Fanta, Benedict’s favorite drink, together and watch soccer? “I think it’s a good thing” she said “but they could’ve done it better.” This criticism is more than fair. 

Overall “The Two Popes” is a great movie. Lillian and I both agreed it is worth the watch, if not for the performances by Hopkins and Pryce, than definitely for the papal conclave set to ABBA or the credits sequence where they both watch the 2014 Germany vs. Argentina World Cup final, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis’ respective home countries. Just remember to take the fictionalized interactions between the Popes with a grain of salt, as the movie is only “inspired” by real events.