I felt strangely pulled between two minds as I sat through The Two Popes, the new movie said to be about the relationship between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
On the one hand—and for most of the first hour—I felt nothing but disquiet and anger at the representation of Benedict. Then I noticed that, gradually, I had become drawn into the movie: In spite of myself, I caught myself caring about the imagined engagement of these two men. The trouble was: These men bore no resemblance to the real-life men they were supposed to represent. That’s fundamentally why The Two Popes (on Netflix starting December 20) is a dangerous and misguided movie.
At the level of story, it is the same old narrative we have been fed by the media from the moment of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope in 2005. He is a “dour traditionalist,” “God’s Rottweiler,” The Man Who Couldn’t Smile or Dance. In the other corner is Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years, a one-time Tango club bouncer, passionate soccer fan, the “man with the common touch,” and in due course the “Christlike Pope”—in contradistinction to all his predecessors. This movie leaves idle no media cliché: Jorge Cardinal Mario Bergoglio’s battered black brogues on the airport security scanner, Francis eschewing the papal red shoes, Bergoglio watching football in a bar and eating takeaway pizza. There’s talk of the evils of walls and the virtues of bridges.
And there is worse. The movie uses clips from real news footage. One vox pop clip shows a man reacting to Benedict’s election: “I know Ratzinger. The Nazi should not have been elected.” It is a spaghetti western without guns or horses. Ratzinger/Benedict is all but fitted up with the droopy moustache: Aloof and introverted, he eats alone, prefers Latin to other languages, has never heard of ABBA, and cannot dance the Tango. Most damningly, he resists Bergoglio’s attempt to hug him. The script leaves viewers in no doubt as to which pope they are expected to side with.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has asserted that the film is meant to speak to a larger debate. “In a world where conservatives and progressives are very entrenched, and moving further apart if anything, and a lot of vitriol, anger flowing both ways, we wanted to make a movie about finding the middle ground.” But the movie does nothing of the kind. It simply repeats the clichés generated for many years by lazy and malevolent journalists.
The script is the offspring of McCarten’s 2017 play The Pope, in which he imagined conversations between the two men. Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of an obsessed, bad-tempered Benedict is counterposed to Jonathan Pryce’s affable, benevolent, and placid Bergoglio. If you know anything of the truth of these two men, it is almost laughable. Bergoglio is played by two actors—Pryce as the older, soon-to-become Pope Francis version; Juan Minujin as the young, earnest, idealistic, and somewhat priggish Bergoglio. Pryce pays the hale-fellow-well-met bloke that those who have met Pope Francis (as I have) may recognize.
Things are not helped by the fact that, in terms of physique and kinesiology, Hopkins is utterly unsuited to playing Benedict. He depicts a bullish, lumbering man, puffed about the face, eyes like those of a dipso with a bad hangover. Everything is wrong; every graceful quality of Joseph Ratzinger is absent: the bearing, the diffidence, the passion for ideas. Neither the shyness nor quiet dignity is there.
Hopkins is also dissatisfying in that he portrays this man—one of the most brilliant Europeans of the past half-century—as a dogged doctrinalist obsessed with homosexuality and clerical celibacy. It feels like he has not, in preparing for this part, picked up even one of Ratzinger’s sixty-odd books or glanced at one of his encyclicals. Anyone who had done so would have been unable to avoid knowing that the great themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy were love, charity, truth, hope, faith, reason, silence, and beauty. Hopkins is an actor of extraordinary genius, who normally approaches his parts with the deepest attention and care. Here, he has chosen to inhabit a caricature designed by others for reasons of myopia, malevolence, or both.
McCarten, born and raised a Catholic, has described the movie as “an even-handed, humanistic little piece. It’s meant to be fair. It’s not meant to whitewash anyone, but it is done in a sensitive way.” He is wrong. This movie could only be thought “fair” by someone who knows little and cares less about the meaning of the Church events and personalities of the past half-century, and the nature of the struggle defining them.
The film was preceded by a book, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, also written by McCarten. His description there of Pope Francis is a mixture of the clichéd and the cockeyed: “A breath of fresh air, with a rock star’s charisma, there was a touch of John Lennon about him (both men had been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine) with a propensity for jaw-dropping statements to make even his most ardent fans gasp.” Bergoglio is a “charismatic, fun-living Argentinian, on the surface a humble man, an extrovert, a simple dresser (he wore the same pair of black shoes for twenty years). . . . He’s a man with the common touch. A man of the people. Once even had a girlfriend.”
Really? The same pair of shoes? Twenty years? It reminds me of the man who had the same broom for twenty-five years—having, in that time, fitted it with seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles. And the “girlfriend”? That would be Amalia Damonte, to whom Bergoglio sent a “love letter” when they were both twelve, telling her that if she didn’t marry him, he would become a priest. Her parents intervened to put an end to their “relationship.”
In its core scenarios, the movie is almost entirely fictional. Bergoglio did not in 2012 fly to Italy to meet with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo to ask for permission to retire. The two men did not spend days together getting to know each other. Pope Benedict did not give Cardinal Bergoglio advance knowledge of his intention to resign. He did not tell him that he regarded himself as no longer fit to be pope. He did not reveal that he had decided Bergoglio would be the perfect choice to replace him.
Aside from its fictions, the film refers to real events out of their chronological sequence: Things that occurred after the election of Pope Francis are depicted as having occurred beforehand. The script seeks to diminish Pope Benedict by elevating his successor even before he succeeds him.
“You’re very popular,” says Ratzinger, as though envious.
“I just try to be myself,” replies Bergoglio modestly.
“Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” the pope responds.
This exchange is rendered nonsensical by the facts. Benedict’s public audiences in St. Peter’s Square were consistently higher than those of Pope Francis, whose numbers decrease all the time. “This popularity of yours, is there a trick to it?,” Benedict asks, seemingly fixated on wishing he were Bergoglio. The problem is that, before he became pope, Bergoglio was barely known in the world, never mind popular. He was not even unambiguously loved in Argentina.
In another scene, late in the evening, Pope Benedict sits at his piano trying to think of something appropriate to play for his guest. Suddenly he asks: “Do you know the Beatles?”
“Yes, I know who they are,” Bergoglio responds. “Eleanor Rigby?”
“Who?” Pope Benedict asks, “I don’t know her.”
This is harmless in its way. But for what it is worth (not much), it is untrue that Pope Benedict is ignorant of pop music, as intimated on several occasions by the script. In fact, he knows a great deal about the music, possibly from hearing it for many years blaring in every café in Rome. He just doesn’t like it. It concerned him that, as he said in his address to the International Church Music Congress in Rome in November 1985, such music “lowers the barriers of individuality and of personality,” “repealing the limits of the everyday,” creating the illusion of “liberation from the ego.” These are not the words of a man who has never heard of ABBA, who does not “know” Eleanor Rigby.
The Church-politics premises of the movie are the jaw-numbingly predictable ones: The Church as represented by Ratzinger/Benedict is “out of touch with the modern world” and this is a bad thing; Bergoglio’s professed desire to bring the Church “into the 21st century” is self-evidently noble and righteous.
Everything about The Two Popes is designed to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Catholicism/Christianity, and everything to do with purveying a bogus notion of freedom in the public realm. The word “reforms” is used as though its virtue were self-evident and unassailable. “The Church votes to make overdue reforms remain overdue,” Bergoglio accuses. The audience is expected to recognize this proposition and nod in agreement. But there is nothing to guide anyone toward a true understanding of the implications.
Everything is grist to the mill of the agenda. Pope Benedict accuses his visitor from Argentina: “You said the Church is narcissistic.” But Francis said this after he became pope, not before. It may seem a minor issue, but it demonstrates one of the problems about this movie: an indifference to fact, never mind the truth, never mind Truth.
The movie suggests that Bergoglio came to notice as a critic of Church leadership while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. “You have been one of my harshest critics,” Benedict upbraids him. “The way you live is a criticism. . . . Even your shoes are a criticism” (those shoes again). But the most interesting thing about Bergoglio’s election was that he rose without trace. Virtually nobody in the wider world had a clue who he was, and those who knew him regarded him as at least as much a “traditionalist” as Ratzinger.
“You compromised,” says Benedict, warming to this theme.
“No,” says Bergoglio, “I changed. It’s a different thing.”
Benedict responds: “Change is compromise.” This line might ring true in a certain acoustic, but not as intended here, and not the way it comes across. Had Pope Benedict uttered such a line, he would have intended to convey that the Church, being the eternal voice of God in the world, does not have the option of compromising with fashion. Here, it reads as the dogged resistance of a man who thinks obduracy a virtue, who is simply stuck in his ways. “God does not change,” he adds, but instead of underscoring his meaning, the implication is that he is equating himself with God.
The script puts words in Pope Benedict’s mouth—not just words to convey convictions or character, but words that seek to change the meaning of history. He announces to Bergoglio his wish to confide “something I ask you to take in your soul and speak of to no one.” Then he reveals his intention to resign in the hope that Bergoglio will succeed him. “Popes can’t resign,” says Bergoglio. “Christ did not come down from the cross”—a line from the diaries of Dorothy Day, repeated by John Paul II, when asked whether he might consider resigning due to his failing health.
“You will damage the papacy forever,” Bergoglio says.
“And what damage will I do if I remain?” These are not words Benedict would have spoken. They are tendentious words dreamt up out of a prejudicial understanding of what Benedict is and was, what he stands for and stood for.
“I struggle to do what has to be done but I’ve lost,” Pope Benedict continues. “For some strange reason I can now see a reason for Bergoglio. You’re the right person. The Church needs to change and you could be that change. . .
“I cannot play this role anymore. There’s a saying: ‘God always corrects one pope by presenting the world with another pope.’ I should . . . I’d like to see my correction.” The script then has Pope Benedict seem to confess a loss of faith: “I cannot feel the presence of God. I cannot hear His voice.”
The “two popes” take turns at hearing each others’ confessions. Bergoglio tells of his failures to support fellow priests during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” during the “Process of National Reorganization” which followed the ascent to power of a military junta in the 1970s. Pope Benedict tries to reassure him about the efforts he made at that time.
Bergoglio flagellates himself: “My dear friend, where was I—where was Christ?—in all this? Was he taking tea in the presidential palace?” Later he admits: “I am a divisive figure in Argentina,” one of the few statements from the mouth of the Bergoglio character that rings completely true.
The implication of the storyline is that by underlining Bergoglio’s guilt over his failure to stand up to Argentina’s oppressive dictatorship, the movie offers a kind of balance: Both popes are shown warts-and-all. But no: The account of Bergoglio’s actions/inaction during the Dirty War are taken from the official record; the depiction of Ratzinger/Benedict is—overwhelmingly—invented.
There follows a sequence that goes beyond crimes of falsification, deceitfulness, and cheating. In the course of his “confession,” Benedict becomes agitated and starts to relate some hitherto unrevealed “sin” from his past. As he does so, his voice is drowned out as though by some kind of interference. We see his lips move; we see the shocked face of Bergoglio. When the sound comes back up, Benedict seems to be finishing some account of his negligence while Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. It is intimated that he failed to act against a Mexican priest, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ: Marcial Maciel Degollado, a sexual abuser of boys. When he is finished, Bergoglio does something a trained priest would never do: He stands up and begins to remonstrate with the penitent who has just unburdened himself.
To the extent that this scene seeks to uphold the calumny that Pope Benedict in some way collaborated in the cover-up of clerical child abuse, it is false and grossly libellous. It was Ratzinger who, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, altered the canonical procedures to make it possible to remove those using the priesthood to prey upon—mostly—teenage boys. As Pope Benedict, he kicked hundreds of such individuals out of the priesthood, including Maciel. In fact, it was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who in 2001 authorized an investigation into the accusations against Maciel. This investigation continued until 2006, by which time Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, Cardinal William Levada, decided—“taking into account both the advanced age of Father Maciel as well as his poor health—to drop the canonical process and invite him to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry.” Pope Benedict approved these decisions. Maciel died in 2008, the highest-ranking priest ever disciplined because of sexual abuse allegations.
There is no mention in the movie of Julio Grassi, the priest currently serving a 15-year sentence for sexually abusing minors in Argentina’s most notorious clerical sex abuse scandal. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did his best to protect Grassi from secular justice, even arranging for the Argentinian bishops’ conference, which was under his presidency, to commission a leading Argentine criminal defense attorney to compile a “forensic study” that claimed Grassi was innocent and sought to discredit his victims. During his trial, Grassi praised Cardinal Bergoglio and thanked him for his support, saying that “Bergoglio never let go of my hand.” Pope Francis has persistently refused to meet with Argentinian victims of clerical sex abuse.
Having tried it a couple of times, I understand the difficulties of converting a real-life story to fictional form, either for stage or screen. Life is too detailed and complex to translate unedited into drama. To marshal the energies of a real-life story, it is always necessary to nip and tuck, elide, compress, transpose, foreshorten, conflate. But in doing this, it is all the more vital that the essence of a story be protected and respected.
McCarten, speaking of writing versions of real-life figures, has said: “Whether they’re alive or dead, you still have to do justice to them. You can’t do injury to their character. You can’t have them doing terrible things when they didn’t do terrible things.” How, then, can he justify The Two Popes? It treats Benedict XVI as though he were not human, as though he were not alive, as though he were unbeloved, as though he had never existed. This is outrageous, yes, but it is also not good art. The propulsion of story is an insufficient justification for the levels of invention, prejudice, and partisanship on display here. The movie title is elaborated by the weasel words, “Inspired by true events.” Yes, but this inspiration has resulted in a farrago of falsehoods. McCarten owes Benedict an apology.
It has been observed that The Two Popes is ultimately frivolous—a “holy bromance,” a “buddy movie,” a sort of “odd couple” remake. So, you know, lighten up! And this is the level on which it is most successful. Yet this is also the movie’s most insidious aspect: It draws you into itself. In the depths of its mendaciousness and shallow moralizing, an engaging and moving story of a personal encounter is told. This means that, as propaganda, this movie is both hugely effective and extremely dangerous.
This could have been a better movie. Funnier, too. It might have started with a scene like this, based on a story—perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, but at worst no more fanciful than ninety percent of this movie—that circulated in the interregnum between the announcement of the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor. (It also, if true, puts paid to the idea that Pope Benedict does not have a sense of humor.)
As the story was told, the pope was being interviewed by a journalist and was discussing the process by which the new pope would be elected. The journalist was fixated on the coming conclave, and the internal politics pertaining thereto. The pope, impatient with this line of questioning, intervened to redirect the conversation.
“Of course,” he said, “it is the Holy Spirit who elects the pope.” Here he is said to have paused before continuing.
“And the Holy Spirit only occasionally makes a mistake.”
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.