The Two Popes: the fairytale our church needs

There is something about fiction that makes it an ideal medium to explore what it means to be human. When faced with biographical stories on a screen, many jump to point out the historical inaccuracies, and few love to dunk on that more than me, but I find myself thinking that sometimes there is a greater point to taking liberties. If anyone figures out what it is in giving Mary Queen of Scots a Scottish accent, please let me know, but I digress…

I came to The Two Popes late, and so have seen the controversies surrounding it. You ask two people what they thought of it, and based on their own views of the real-life of the Church they will give you two opposing views of the portrayal in the film. Almost everyone will either love it or loathe it based on where they fall on the political divide that they attribute as the agenda of the film. Francis = reform = good v Benedict = conservative = bad. However, I don’t think it really suggested that, and the character who comes out of it looking the better one is, in my humble opinion, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Let’s forget for a moment what happened lately in his life, and focus on the time period covered by the film. The Two Popes intertwines beautiful cinematography with journalism from the period, showing us a range of reactions to the death of a beloved pontiff (John Paul II) and the election of his successor. This provides the context for the Church divided as depicted in the scenes of the conclave. The late Cardinal Martini makes an appearance, perhaps a reductionist one, and I’m surprised at how many people seem to think the film is sympathetic to the reformists when one of the kindest and most gentle men I’ve ever met is depicted as he was in the film.

There are some lines which seem to show Cardinal Ratzinger in a bad light, but I think it’s not a judgement on him from the filmakers (accused of putting a liberal Hollywood slant on everything) as much as setting the stage for the unlikely friendship that forms the core of the film. I may have shed a tear when he was shown reacting to the election of Pope Francis in the sweetest of ways, perfectly captured by Anthony Hopkins’ performance. I don’t care if they took plenty of liberties with that, I have never seen a friendship so pure and I really want to hold onto the warm fuzzy feelings as long as I can.

Benedict XVI is depicted as a reactionary in public image, but the behind-the-scenes show a quiet intellectual who likes to play the piano and feels that when he is himself nobody likes him. A feeling this introvert who loves Jane Austen knows too well. Looking back at the bibliography of the man himself, I can definitely see it as realistic, even if the whole set up of the film is fictional (his constant companion and spokesperson Archbishop Gänswein is nowhere to be seen). There is no way he isn’t the opposite personality of the gregarious son of Italians from Argentina that we see in Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce (has anyone tried to find out if they are distantly related? Because they look like twins), even if he doesn’t eat alone.

Pope Francis is shown as a man with regrets over his past, who (it’s hinted) fuel his lack of interest for the position many are keen to give him even in the 2005 Conclave (although many would dispute he had no interest in the job given his set of policies pre-Conclave in real life), and I wonder if one of the messages of the film is that his humility in refusing the external trappings for the papacy was not a rejection of his predecessor, but in the end a way to honour him instead.

It is, after all, a romanticised encounter: they see each other as embodiment of a vision for the Church that cannot get along. The attempted resignation of Cardinal Bergoglio came from his belief that the Church had chosen the other one, but Pope Benedict’s decision to resign knowing the conclave would have swayed towards Bergoglio (some reviewers think the scene in the Sistine Chapel was pretty much fixing the result) appears to me as him resigning himself to the inevitable. The Church was marching towards Francis’ vision whether he liked it or not.

The past sins confessed by the two men to each other are not true to reality, although Francis’ one is truer than Benedict’s (who in fact was the one taking action against Marcial Maciel Degollado). One reason for this liberty (other than wanting to put him in negative light) could be the desire to show these two giants of the Church as humans who, despite their opposing views of her, have more in common than what divides them. In a very dramatic but casually delivered line, Pope Benedict says (I paraphrase from memory) that God corrects one pope with the next and he would like to see his corrections. At the end of the day, behind the external trappings of the papacy that we are shown as being his preference (Cardinal Bergoglio gets told off for not looking like a Cardinal, but then complies the next day), lies a very humble man.

It’s not really openly shown in the film, or at least not as much as I would have liked, but one way in which the symbols of the papacy are seen by traditionalists is that they make the Pope himself (and the Cardinals etc) a symbol that is larger than the man. In this sense, Benedict embracing them is as humble as Francis refusing them (a move many on the more traditional side find arrogant instead). Francis’ vision for the Church is a Church on the frontline and slimming down the pomp makes it easier to roll up your sleeves and get the work done. I think it’s a crisis Church, like a field altar when Mass was said at the front in war times. It doesn’t mean those who outlive the crisis won’t be going back to their beautiful churches.

The film ends on a note that reinforces their unlikely friendship, showing a football fan and someone who doesn’t really get it watching their countries’ national teams play against each other in the World Cup. Pope Benedict is really not as ignorant of the sport as he’s painted: in fact, he is an ardent supporter of Bayern Munich. As I said at the beginning, the only way to grasp the point the film is making is to suspend our disbelief, forget that they are two real people going through historical facts, and take the story for what it is. And what it is, to me, is a story of friendship in a Church that is divided. I’d go as far as saying it’s a model for us all of how to close the divide with Catholics who are not like us.

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