Why did Pope Benedict XVI resign? If you ask the internet, you can find all kinds of theories, from his supposed inability to deal with the clergy abuse crisis to pressure from dark powers inside the Vatican.
“The Two Popes” (released in theaters Nov. 27, available on Netflix Dec. 20) joins the chorus with its own surprising, albeit fictional answer: Not only had Pope Benedict realized that his papacy was going to be the Church’s ruin, but he wanted Cardinal Bergoglio to come in and save the day.
“The Two Popes” is a cut above your usual Church movie. Anthony Hopkins’ performance is terrific, though his Pope Benedict (harsh, authoritarian, narcissistic) does not resemble in the least the real Pope Benedict. This appears to be a deliberate artistic decision, as director Francisco Meirelles (known for “City of God”) has admitted finding the real Cardinal Ratzinger too lacking in charisma to be realistically portrayed on screen.
Jonathan Pryce looks uncannily like Pope Francis (so much so that his children send him messages saying ‘Dad, are you the pope, secretly?’). Add the striking costumes, the realistic reconstructions of Vatican interiors (yes, what you see is not the real Sistine Chapel), the vintage cinematography style of its flashback sections, and such moving scenes as the final picture of the two popes watching together the soccer World Cup final between Argentina and Germany, and you get a sense of the kind of movie we are talking about.
But, alas, “The Two Popes” delivers a message that seldom rises above the banal and shallow, and it gravely misrepresents both of these protagonists of the most momentous turn of events in the Church’s recent history.
The movie revolves around two symmetrical conversions: a man who is enamored of power (Pope Benedict) learns that he needs to resign, while a man who longs to resign (Cardinal Bergoglio) is coaxed into accepting power.
Cardinal Bergoglio, disappointed with the ultraconservative path of the Church under Pope Benedict’s leadership, travels to Rome to get the pope to sign off on his resignation papers. In a series of meetings, he trades barbs with Pope Benedict on every possible theological issue, until the latter finally uncovers his intention to step down, and goes on to anoint Cardinal Bergoglio as his ideal successor. Pope Francis is elected, the Church regains consensus, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In drawing this caricature of contrasts between the pope and the pope emeritus, “The Two Popes” goes all out. Pope Benedict is portrayed as a relic of an obsolete Church who speaks to his fellow prelates in Latin in the bathroom, chides Cardinal Bergoglio for his humble choice of living quarters, and demands strict adherence to protocol, even in their choice of clerical dress. The German pope only listens to classical music, takes dinner by himself, and even admits that he hid in books out of fear throughout his life.
The future Pope Francis, on the other hand, is portrayed as everything his predecessor is not. He’s dated women in his pre-seminary life, knows of the Beatles and Abba, and watches soccer games in Roman bars alongside the common folk. On theological matters he is the embodiment of progressive right-thinking: environmentalist, pro-gay, in favor of giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, an enemy of capitalism.
In one strangely anachronistic scene, the future Pope Francis is depicted saying, “We need to build bridges, not walls,” as a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall is shown (even though the scene is set two or three years before Trump is even elected): it is quite clear that the director wants us to look at the Bergoglio/Ratzinger confrontation as a symbol of today’s political conflicts.
It’s hard to tell which caricature is more harmful: that of Pope Francis as a pope who’s on the progressive side of every intra-Catholic social issue debate of the last 50 years, or that of Pope Benedict as a creature of the Vatican whose contributions to the faith haven’t amounted to much more than writing books and being responsible for the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.
The movie’s recipe for reforming the Church is simplistic, to say the least. True, there is much corruption in the Church, and the Church is in serious need of reform and renewal. But at the heart of the movie, and of so many disagreements between Church leaders, lies a question: How can Christianity become attractive again?
Will it be when Christians show that they can do what no one else can, that the measure of their love is unattainable by human effort and points to the presence of a loving God? Or will it be when they finally align themselves with mainstream Western liberal thinking on every issue?
What's emblematic, even amusing about this movie, however, is the idea that such a black and white representation of the conservative vs. progressive conflict within the Church (and, by implication, outside of it) will foster dialogue.
“I think what sets this film apart from others I’ve done is that it’s very much a debate. It’s a debate between two positions we’re all familiar with — the traditionalist and the reformist — trying to find common ground,” says Anthony McCarten, who penned the movie’s script.
The problem is, the movie does nothing of the sort.
The movie’s view of “dialogue” is one where your morally corrupt antagonists finally open their eyes, realize the absurdity of their ideas, and yield power to you. Pope Benedict’s positions are made to look so patently absurd and untenable that one must be stupid or corrupt to hold such beliefs.
There is no authentic dialogue in “The Two Popes,” no effort to find common ground: The liberal position embodied by the fictional Cardinal Bergoglio makes no concessions. This film is a progressive’s daydream of a conservative’s conversion.
Such an attitude sounds familiar today, when many Americans seem to view one another only through a liberal-conservative lens, which is precisely what makes dialogue impossible. Doesn’t dialogue begin when one realizes that one’s opponent is someone as human as yourself, whose motivations are worth trying to comprehend?
In this, the film stands as an incongruous tribute to a pope who has said that the future of the West rests on cultivating a “capacity for dialogue” and a “culture of encounter” that respects the views of others and seeks authentic means for “building consensus and agreement” toward the goals of a just and peaceful world.
It is doubtful that the real Pope Francis would agree that what is shown in “The Two Popes” constitutes a “real” dialogue.