The Two Popes

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Fernando Meirelles.  Staring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins.

As Steven Greydanus noted in his review of The Two Popes, Roger Ebert’s Memoirs of a Geisha principle applies to this movie: the more you know about the subject the harder it is to overlook the glaring inaccuracies. Deacon Greydanus has done the heavy lifting regarding some of the more outrageous claims the movie puts forward about Benedict, so I see no need to repeat the rebuttal here other than to add a few points of my own.

The notion that Benedict, “God’s Rottweiler,” was an uptight conservative holding onto the worst elements of Catholicism and Francis is a progressive reformer who will guide the Church into the 21st century is hardly original to this film. Still, it’s a preconception that gets on my nerves, partially because I think it’s very reasonable to argue that Francis is less progressive than Benedict XVI was, considering the countless times Benedict wrote about care for the environment, social justice, and was the pope who said democratic socialism is completely compatible with Catholicism.

However, since historical fiction has a valuable place and purpose—I really need to find time to write about why Amadeus is one of the greatest works of cinema, but that’s for another day—it’s worthwhile to accept the movie’s premise and review it on its own terms. I think it also fails as a work of historical fiction.

That failure is put into light partially by the most historically accurate parts: the flashbacks of a young Father Bergoglio (Juan Minujín) discerning his vocation, navigating the Argentine Dirty War as a bishop while trying to keep as many people alive as possible, and later passionately calling for economic justice. These scenes are some of the best of the movie and on their own make a compelling cinematic story of the first South American pope.

However, as promising as those scenes are, they are always followed by the fictitious meeting between Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) that forms the bulk of the narrative. While the notions of cross-examining and changing long-held beliefs are important and interesting, the portrayal always becomes overly simplistic with the mentality of Benedict = BAD and Francis = GOOD.

The hagiographical portrayal of Francis almost makes him seem above criticism. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles work hard to refute the more scandalous claims that have been leveled against Francis, but Benedict gets no such treatment. The scenes of him playing the piano are nice, and the filmmakers respect his love of reading and scholarship, but compared to the treatment Francis gets, it’s akin to Benedict’s insufficient reforms regarding the sex abuse scandal: too little, too late.

Dramatically, that’s a problem, because it undermines the climax where both pontiffs admit their shortcomings and confess to one another, but from what we’ve seen only one of them has any real need to confess. Bergoglio essentially has an Oskar Schindler moment that he could have done better, which is not a sin per se.

The confession scene also briefly portrays Benedict as more heterodox than Francis. Randomly granting absolution at the end of a conversation in which someone admits they feel remorse is not a confession, and I personally know very orthodox Catholics who would be aghast at a priest doing such a thing without the ritual of the sacrament. After an entire film in which Benedict is a strict rules follower to have him reverse course that abruptly is ludicrous.

More problematic is Benedict’s confession. I’m willing to overlook that he confesses he knew about Marcial Maciel’s crimes and did nothing (John Paul II knew and did nothing; Benedict removed him from ministry), because there were plenty of other times Benedict handled the sex abuse in the Church badly and conflating Benedict with John Paul II in this scene works with the premise. However, the cut to Bergoglio’s reaction implies that he is going to be the perfect reformer who cleans house and fixes the sex abuse problem in the Church.

To quickly summarize the failures of the past three popes in that regard: John Paul II was in denial the sexual abuse was happening, Benedict put weak, insufficient reforms in place, and Francis seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s been taken care of and he can focus his energy on climate change and economic justice. Making Francis seem like he will correct Benedict’s failures in this regard seriously downplays the extent of the sexual abuse that has plagued the Church and still does.

As a thought experiment, if the film replaced Benedict XVI with John Paul II and Cardinal Bergoglio with Cardinal Ratzinger, I think it might be less inaccurate, at least regarding the retirement subplot and Ratzinger’s reluctance to be pope. I know inaccuracies in historical fiction are beside the point, but I think that highlights how committed the filmmakers are to the notion of Francis as reformer, even at the cost of consistent characterization or real reforms.

 

Personal recommendation: D

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