Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes. Photo by Peter Mountain/Netflix

Bob Brehl: 'The Two Popes' just what Church needs

  • December 11, 2019

The Two Popes is an entertaining movie that is well-acted, well-written and visually appealing, especially when considering most of the movie is about two old men in frocks verbally jousting over weighty issues. But, make no mistake, it is a drama with lots of humour sprinkled in, not a documentary.

Viewers should bear this in mind when it begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 20. Director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten use historical fiction as a way of conveying their overall message that compromise and tolerance for conflicting viewpoints are more important than polarization and intolerance in today’s world.

It’s a “feel-good” movie just in time for Christmas, and just what the Catholic Church could use these days. When was the last time a mainstream movie portrayed the Church in any sort of positive light? Maybe as far back as Bing Crosby in his heyday?

And that’s not to say that The Two Popes whitewashes the scandals the Church has faced in recent years. But the movie is about two fundamentally good men, each trying his best for the betterment of the Church in a changing world. Starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, the film centres on a series of supposed meetings leading up to Benedict’s resignation in which they tackle thorny theological discussions.

The movie may give the impression it’s a rare behind-the-scenes peek at the papacy, but factually not much is known about those meetings, or even if they occurred. McCarten, an Oscar-nominated writer for Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, imagines what the two may have discussed, humanizing them with details like Benedict’s love of Fanta pop and Francis’ well-known passion for soccer.

It’s easy to nitpick with other historical aspects, which are assumptions, not facts. Things such as Bergoglio finishing second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the secret papal vote during the 2005 conclave or Ratzinger angling to succeed Pope St. John Paul II. Ratzinger was a scholarly academic more comfortable with books than the limelight. Him acting as a shifty-eyed, glad-handing politician in the conclave rubs the wrong way.

Again, it’s a movie; 125 minutes of entertainment, not a weighty papal encyclical.

Early in the movie, there were times when some insults — like Nazi slurs, for example — were levelled at Benedict to make him look far more rigid and right-wing than he’s been viewed from this corner. There are, however, many examples, in his writings and his actions, of Benedict’s advocacy for the poor, his warnings about the environment and his appeals to aid migrants and refugees which prove him to be progressive in many ways, just like Francis.

Indeed, on many occasions this column has stated that too many observers in mainstream media fall “into the zero-sum trap that suggests Pope Benedict was bad because Pope Francis is so good. That simply is not the case. As has been said here previously, history will remember Benedict much better than the so-called experts and pundits do today.”

This movie starts out that way but moves to rehabilitate Benedict’s legacy and image. He’s been called the “Reluctant Pope” for good reason. He was always more comfortable writing and thinking, instead of under the public glare. His writings around modernity and postmodernity have contributed as much or more than any Catholic thinker on what it means to be Catholic today.

The real Benedict was never the diehard “conservative,” nor the real Bergoglio the intransient “progressive” as portrayed in the film.

Though Hopkins plays the straight man to Pryce’s more jovial character, he does land one of the funnier lines after he awkwardly tells a joke that falls flat. “It’s a German joke,” he says to Bergoglio, “it doesn’t have to be funny.” 

There are three good reasons to get a bowl of popcorn and stream The Two Popes over Christmas. 

The acting is superb. The chemistry between Hopkins and Pryce is dynamic and one or both could get Oscar nominations.

At times, it is visually stunning. Set basically between the Pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and a remarkable set recreating the Sistine Chapel, the cinematography is beautiful.

And finally, the message is so positive and needed right now. Though the Church has been battered with scandals, it remains a vessel of hope with good people at the top who are human and want to do what is best, despite different viewpoints.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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