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‘The Two Popes’: An imagined spiritual journey
“The Two Popes,” which begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20, invites us into two journeys, disparate at their outset, that eventually intersect and join toward an ultimate destination. As fellow travelers, we are invited by screenwriter Anthony McCarten into a flight of fantasy that asks us to consider “What if?” McCarten adapts his earlier work in “The Pope” to base his story of two pontiffs within historical confines, but asks viewers to ultimately leap into the unknown parts of these stories with him and to imagine what happens along the path.
Director Fernando Meirelles’ opening images provide what will become recurrent themes. A white-robed gentleman holds an old-school corded telephone and attempts to navigate his way through the maze of an automated telephone system to book an airplane ticket from Rome to Lampedusa, Italy. When he shares that “I’ve only just moved here” and identifies himself as Jorge Bergoglio, a bored airline representative responds sarcastically, “Like the pope?” and asks for the caller’s postal code. The white-clad man’s sincere and humorous answer, “I’m not sure… Vatican City?” results in the airline personnel hanging up on him. This foreshadowing of Pope Francis’ first official journey to meet migrants and refugees on the tiny island of Lampedusa gives an insight into a focus on reform, personal outreach and conversion that McCarten depicts as hallmarks of Pope Francis’ spirituality.
Next, we flash back to juxtaposed images of the moments immediately following the 2005 death of Pope St. John Paul II. Cardinal Bergoglio, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, is delivering a homily on the life of St. Francis of Assisi to an unruly crowd assembled at an outdoor Mass in Buenos Aires. His ease and closeness to his flock is on display as we see the archbishop playfully invoke the prayers of San Lorenzo, the name of his favorite football club. Moments later, Bergoglio is informed of the death of the pope.
Our first encounter with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger comes after a glimpse at the funeral rituals and a montage of news recaps of Pope John Paul II’s legacy. Cardinals from around the world amass to enter the conclave where a new pontiff will be selected. Ratzinger strides the marbled halls of the Vatican purposefully alongside an assistant, who shows him photos of various papabile frontrunners who are presumably in the running for the election. After the aid provides briefings on Cardinal Husar (“Cardinal of Kiev”) and Cardinal Arinze (“Many say he will be the first African pope”), the aid shows the next photo in his binder: “Bergoglio, Argentina. Leading advocate for reform. Very popular in …” and Cardinal Ratzinger nods knowingly, interrupting “I know who he is.” Anthony Hopkins, whose portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI is skillfully understated, carries us over the years as the pope eventually moves into Emeritus status. His distaste for Cardinal Bergoglio is immediately obvious.
What plays out in “The Two Popes” is a gentle moving from these initially entrenched stereotypes of two diametrically opposed personalities into a more fully evolved portrait of two pastors. While based in historical fact, the film ultimately is an imagined series of ongoing encounters between men who begin as adversaries and end as brothers. We are offered a deeper look into Pope Francis’ story: his tender romance and engagement, his dramatic call to the priesthood, and his rise to leadership in the Jesuit order. We also witness events attendant to Bergoglio’s actions before and during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970’s that resulted in the capture and torture of two of his fellow Jesuits. Pope Benedict’s back story, in contrast, is never fully developed.
On more than one occasion, director Meirelles positions Father Bergoglio, portrayed compellingly in his younger years by Juan Minujín, atop a deserted hillside deep in contemplation. These moments, so reminiscent of Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert before his public ministry, exemplify a few of the ways that “The Two Popes” offers the viewer a call to spiritual introspection.
At the heart of the film is a protracted and ongoing conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. This imagined dialogue unfolds in a few locations, including inside and in the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, where Bergoglio repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — requests that the pope accept his resignation. Abruptly, Pope Benedict XVI is summoned back to Rome due to the outbreak of a scandal, and Bergoglio accompanies him in a helicopter. Their conversation eventually continues in the Sistine Chapel as the two share deeply heartfelt emotions and eventually hear one another’s confessions.
From a production perspective, there is much to love about “The Two Popes.” Filmed in both Argentina and Rome, the scenery affords a beautiful look inside places at the Vatican that many of us likely will never see personally. A perfect replica of the Sistine Chapel, built to scale, includes CGI of the famous ceiling and a lovely inclusion of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” as a telling device. Music is abundant in the film — both Pope Benedict XVI’s classical piano, played by Hopkins, and Pope Francis’ tango, playfully danced more than once, but also “Dancing Queen” by ABBA and mentions of Abbey Road and the Beatles.
Humor lightens the heavy conversations along the way. Pope Benedict’s Fitbit reminds him to “keep moving.” The men share pizza and watch the World Cup together. Pope Francis asks a Swiss Guard if he can help him place a cellphone call. These lighter moments do not detract from the forward motion of the story but instead remind us that what we are watching is a flight of fancy, and that it’s OK — indeed important — to find moments of joy along the journey.
Ultimately, viewers of faith will need to decide for themselves about “The Two Popes.” Clearly a work of fiction, the liberties taken with some plot points may be concerning, and the filmmaker’s perspective is telegraphed. But this story also serves an invitation here to deep spiritual encounter as Jesus’ parables did. In witnessing the stories of two men, in their discernment, their desire to serve and even in their brokenness and reconciliation, we can’t help but consider our own journey toward God. Many who do not know the Church and her teachings likely will be touched and inspired by this film. Viewers who are not actively practicing their faith hopefully will be encouraged to return to the sacraments or to seek, perhaps for the first time, Christ’s loving mercy to heal their own hurts and divisions. “The Two Popes” reminds us that God works in and through each of us. Our story is ultimately a long and winding journey toward our ultimate destination: an eternity with God.
“The Two Popes” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images. It begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20.
Lisa Hendey writes from California.