Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict in a scene from The Two Popes. Peter Mountain/Netflix

Charles Lewis: One film, two popes, many opinions

  • February 6, 2020

We Catholics are at times indifferent about those things that should deeply concern us but obsessed by those things that should be water off our backs. 

All over social media there are rants of derision against the movie The Two Popes. By contrast, there is almost nothing about Justin Trudeau’s decision to expand euthanasia to teens, the mentally ill, as well as allow for advanced directives for those who fear ending up in vegetative state.

I think it is enough to say euthanasia is a more serious problem than a film. 

So, to the film:

Criticism of The Two Popes has come from those who have seen the film and those who have not. Those who have seen it say the portrayal of Pope Benedict is a caricature of a legalistic grump, while Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later to become Pope Francis, comes off as the man with a big heart. Those who have not seen the film but have an opinion, based on critical reviews and negative comments on social media, have decided to let others think for them.

One well-known Catholic commentator who saw the film was Bishop Robert Barron, whose review appeared in The Register and on his Word On Fire website.

“The new and much-ballyhooed Netflix film The Two Popes should, by rights, be called The One Pope, for it presents a fairly nuanced, textured and sympathetic portrait of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and a complete caricature of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). This imbalance fatally undermines the movie, whose purpose, it seems, is to show that old grumpy, legalistic Benedict finds his spiritual bearings through the ministrations of friendly, forward-looking Francis.”

I love Pope Benedict. I have read nearly every book he has written. I have a rosary blessed by him that I cherish. I did not see what Bishop Barron and others have seen. In the film, I saw him as a great leader of the faith defending truth. 

The great Anthony Hopkins portrays Benedict. His ability to inherit any character he portrays is on display in The Two Popes

The film begins with Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, arriving at Benedict’s summer residence.They walk through beautiful gardens. Benedict shows his frustration with the Argentinean’s views for not being based on dogma and doctrine. “Oh, I see, your opinion,” Benedict chides, with a hint of sarcasm.

Then there are the wonderful scenes in which Benedict joyfully plays the piano for Bergoglio. Both men begin to speak to each other as brothers in Christ.

The heart of the movie takes place in a mock Sistine Chapel. They are alone and both in a sense begin to hear each other’s confession. For Benedict it’s the shame of the abuse scandal. Then there is Bergoglio’s confession about his behaviour under Argentina’s brutal military junta and his “collaboration” with the regime.

This film changes to a grainy black and white. You see the excesses of the junta: people summarily shot, armed thugs attacking unarmed civilians and suspected leftists being thrown out of airplanes into the sea. 

Bergoglio explains that it was his way of protecting some of the potential targets of the regime, including many fellow Jesuits. Many who watch will see the awful guilt that Bergoglio still feels. Many in Argentina have never forgiven him.

Some, though not Bishop Barron, have criticized that the extensive dialogue has been made up. Did anyone think that either Bergoglio or Benedict taped their discussions hoping one day it would end up in a script?

There is one point I think was unfair. It shows Benedict scheming to be pope after St. Pope JPII dies. From everything I have read Benedict would have rather retired to his native Bavaria to live in peace.

The Two Popes is something akin to a kind of parable of the Church today — a tension between change and tradition. Most of all, it is beautiful. It made me proud to be Catholic.

For those who feel aggrieved by The Two Popes can I remind you this is just a film. For those who have not seen it, see it if you can. Make up your own minds. Your faith is safe. 

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible, which has become acutely important amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.