The papacy has been around so long there’s a precedent for almost anything, including an incumbent resigning.
True, you have to go back to the thirteenth century for the last one to go of his own accord before Benedict XVI in 2013, but he’s there (or rather not there).
I would never have expected that watching two elderly cardinals, one the Pontiff and one shortly to be, just… talking would be so much fun, and so fascinating – watching their veneers crack as they finally move from the comparatively solid ground of religious doctrinal conflict to their own failings as churchmen. (Both men at least believe in god, not always a prerequisite for high religious office.)
These are imagined conversations between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), later Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) – and the two actors are phenomenal together.
Hopkins drives home the hidden loneliness that even Benedict won’t acknowledge, apparently so determinedly sure of himself and his views. And he remains deliberately shrouded. Pryce is the warm heart of the film, the conscience in a way, though it’s because Bergoglio has already been forced to face his own betrayals.
Benedict has decided to resign as Pope, though he doesn’t tell Bergoglio at first. The Argentinian Bergoglio meanwhile wants to retire as Cardinal. They talk about increasingly ugly incidents while walking round the beautifully fragrant gardens of Pope Benedict’s summer residence, the papal step counter authoritatively telling him to keep going; or in the Vatican’s richly decorated chapels; or watching football in the pontiff’s living quarters.
They are the two opposing forces of Catholicism. Bergoglio is a reformer who connects well with ordinary people, a football lover who also likes to dance the tango, and prefers his own comfy shoes to the red leather slippers of their ornate uniforms. He wasn’t even ordained until he was in his 30s.
An intellectual and a lover of Latin (the language, not the dance) Benedict loves the pomp that goes with the ceremony, and has never heard of The Beatles. He dips his toe into popular culture with a favourite TV show about a dog called Commissar Rex (apparently a real programme), but that’s about it.
They bond over music, despite Benedict not having heard of Eleanor Rigby, a song by the biggest band in the world about loneliness that references a parish priest.
Despite their differences their doctrinal battles are less a fight for believers’ souls and more a desperate attempt to find a way forward for the Catholic Church. Benedict is an enigma in some ways, and the world doesn’t really want enigmas at the moment.
Both men are weakened by public scandal, but more than that by the human cost of what they have done, or failed to do: the refusal to deal appropriately with sexual abuse by priests (Benedict), and the removal of protection for his Jesuit priests during the 1970s while Argentina lived under a fascist dictatorship (Bergoglio).
Forgiveness is examined at length: if fallibility makes you a better Pope, is there still a point where what you have done is too bad for you to continue in the higher echelons of the Church? If a sinner is absolved by the Church, where does that leave the victims? If you absolve the abusers and they continue to abuse, where does that leave you? There are many scenes in confessionals, dark, ornately carved little spaces which should invoke self-reflection but often haven’t.
The Two Popes is more about Bergoglio than Benedict, though by resigning Benedict sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church. Bergoglio is flawed but appears contrite. As leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, his removal of protections for his priests during the Dirty War resulted in the kidnap and torture of three of them.
There are flashbacks into Bergoglio’s life: black and white footage of him falling in love or going dancing in the 1950s, before his calling to become a Jesuit priest; then the rather washed out footage of the 1970s when Argentina was under a dictatorship and opponents disappeared, and its aftermath.
The pomp and ceremony (pope and ceremony?) of the papal voting system in the Vatican is fascinating in its merging of old and new. It’s like a reality TV show episode: closed off from the outside world, lines of men (mostly white though not all) in their scarlet and white robes, seated on benches in the ancient hall, cast their votes – moving a small wooden ball with their name on to show they’ve voted. After the votes are counted out loud, a very modern burner is used to pump out the smoke that indicates if a new pontiff has been chosen from that round of voting (white smoke) or not (black smoke) – to the excited world media and a billion believers.
We don’t get equal time to dwell in each man’s mind and conscience, because part of Benedict is the loneliness he doesn’t acknowledge in himself. He seems to spend so much time on doctrine and divine forgiveness he’s missed the human side to the Church and the human cost of his misguidedness when he deals with real life, thinking that confession for an abusive priest is enough, because then the man is washed clean of sin, and freed to carry on abusing children.The film’s examination of Bergoglio feels more thorough, and his reward correspondingly greater. Twice in the film Benedict is accused by people of being a Nazi, though it’s never looked into.
By contrast Bergoglio has spent years forcing himself (or being forced by others) to face up to his behaviour during the 1970s in Argentina under the Junta. (It may be that this film is being particularly kind to Bergoglio; I don’t know, though in cinematic terms it’s necessary to the narrative that he be further along on the real spiritual journey they both need to make.)
On occasion The Two Popes feels too tolerant; at other times it sounds a little preachy (though we can probably forgive them that). Mostly though it is an unexpected treat: witty, well-judged, thought-provoking and superbly acted.
The Two Popes is currently on limited release in UK cinemas and will be available on Netflix from 20 December 2019
Watch the trailer for The Two Popes: