The Two Popes was directed and written by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI. Based on the play by Anthony McCarten.
“The hardest thing is to listen!” says Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to Pope Benedict. Consider this a challenge to the viewers of The Two Popes. In the absence of car chases and caped crusaders, we have little else to do here but pay attention to the extended, ongoing conversation between these two men, one a Pope-in-waiting, the other the current Pope-not-yet-retired. Be patient. It’s worth it.
(Correction: These two men are indeed Caped Crusaders, but their vestments bespeak a Higher Authority than a comic book.)
But while we listen, we enjoy some of the most literate dialogue to come our way in such a long time. These two men have something on their minds. Bergoglio — soon to become Pope Francis — has written Benedict begging permission to retire from his position of Arch Bishop of Buenos Aires. Rather than answer him directly, Benedict invites Bergoglio to his summer residence. And they talk. And they talk. A nice bit of comic business is Bergoglio’s insistence on a signature for his retirement request. Deftly evading this, Benedict has something else on his mind. During the course of their conversation, which ranges from the sunny Papal gardens, to the Sistine Chapel, to a pizza stand (yes!), it becomes clear that Benedict wishes to retire and wants to make sure that the reluctant Bergoglio remains in a position to succeed him.
That’s just one holy bone of contention. No sooner do they first meet than they are immediately at loggerheads. Benedict the conservative pleads for such conventional Catholic dogma as the Mass in Latin, priests pledging celibacy, women excluded from the priesthood, etc.; and Francis the liberal questions all these things, declaring that change in the Church need not be confused with that dreaded word, “compromise.” He refuses to wear his vestments in the streets and even objects to the those pretty red shoes Popes are supposed to wear. He loves ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and the Beatles’s “Abbey Road.” He dances the tango and roots for Argentinian soccer. Benedict, for his part, at first stiffly positioned behind his German academic training, eventually, loosens up, shares a pizza and even indulges in a brief tango with Bergoglio. And there’s a particularly winning moment when Benedict sits at a piano and plays a snippet of music by his favorite composer, Bedrich Smetana. The notes open a window to this man’s gentle soul.
Yes, there’s wit and anecdotal details in their exchanges, and “The Dancing Queen” reappears betimes on the soundtrack. But we’re not fooled. There’s serious business here: Each man will ask for Confession from the other. Each will relate shadows of doubt and transgression in his past — Benedict’s muddled politics during the Nazi era and his lack of commitment to rooting out predator priests; Bergoglio’s own political troubles when as a young priest he chose to align himself to the military junta suppressing Argentine citizens. And each in concord laments a world where no one takes responsibility for the political, emotional, spiritual chaos engulfing the world without and within the Vatican. “When no one is to blame,” says Bergoglio, “everyone is to blame.”
Now, there are a few problems with The Two Popes, namely, the film’s tendency to wander off into lengthy flashbacks of Bergoglio’s life. We share his political shame, his expulsion from “official” Catholic circles, his days of Calvary (of doubt and despair), his resurgence back into accepted circles and finally to the Papal Seat. Our attention flags. We would much rather listen . . . attend to those reverberant words and controversies that enlisted our attention in the first place.
In sum, however, this marvelous and unexpected film does indeed issue some profound, albeit disturbing truths. And it’s not a pretty picture. No one escapes the stain of corruption and the guilts of sin. Not even Popes.
But they declare words that hit us like a thunderbolt:
“TRUTH WITHOUT LOVE IS UNBEARABLE.”