During the Christmas holidays I watched the film The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles, recently released by Netflix.
It is based on the 2017 play The Pope by Anthony McCarten, in which he imagined conversations that never occurred between Pope Francis when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Pope Benedict XVI, and the screenplay is also by McCarten.
What is bad about this movie is not so much that fiction is vastly more abundant than the meagre quantity of reality as the fact that, if a viewer does not know the events already, he receives no clue from the film about what is truth and what is fantasy.
As if to help people in discerning that, in the infant 2020 year new serious conflicts have been widely reported in the media between the two real Popes, whose fictional cinematic counterparts in Meirelles’s work are fundamentally on the exact same page. In reality there are many divergences of ideas between them.
As most people will probably know, we are now in that historically unique situation of actually having two Popes in the monarchic institution of the Church (the adjective, stemming from the Greek monos, meaning “one”, and arché, “authority”, should give a hint).
This is because Pope Benedict XVI, when he abdicated in 2013 (another near-unique event in 2,000 year’s history, further sign of the exceptional times the Church is going through), declared he was not renouncing the spiritual role and duties deriving from the “munus Petrinum” (Peter’s function) but only the active office of his ministry as Pontiff.
The Pope, successor of St Peter, is the visible head of the Catholic Church; the invisible head is Jesus Christ, Who founded it with these words:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock
I will build My church,
And the gates of hell will not prevail against it:
And I will give you the keys
To the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth
Will be bound also in heaven;
And whatever you release on earth
Will be released also in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)
So Benedict XVI kept living in the Vatican, dressing in white, and more importantly maintained his title of Pope, with the addition of “Emeritus”, a Latin adjective for a person who, no longer exercising a specific office, still keeps its title and honours. University professors are more common recipients of this name. In short he remained Pope too.
In that sense, “the two Popes” is an expression which never before could have been used in reference to the same period of time.
There have been only six other Popes to have abdicated in the Church’s bimillenary history, but no Pope in renouncing the Throne of Peter assumed the title of “Emeritus” before Benedict XVI.
The Popes Upside Down
This is the context. Going back to the film, far from a portrayal of reality, the movie The Two Popes runs dangerously close to turning reality upside down, pandering to all falsities and prejudices spread by the media in all these recent years, driven by ideological and political motivations.
Therefore, we see or are led to believe that Joseph Ratzinger is the culprit in sexual abuse cover-ups whereas he is the one who, both as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming Pope and after ascending the Chair of St Peter, made it possible to remove those who used the priesthood to assault mostly teenage boys and then removed hundreds of them, whereas in this area Francis left unanswered many accusations of protecting homosexual high-ranking prelates like former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick preying on young men.
Francis is portrayed in the movie as the darling of the crowds, friendly and good-tempered, unlike Pope Ratzinger who is shown as rigid, harsh, austere, and even pronouncing that he is not liked. And again, the truth is entirely different: the number of people attending celebrations in St Peter’s Square was higher for the latter than the former.
In conclusion, let’s hear on First Things John Waters, who is a playwright himself:
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.
There are perhaps only two good things in this movie. One is the way the two main actors resemble the Popes, respectively Anthony Hopkins Benedict XVI and even more Jonathan Pryce Pope Francis. The other is the setting of some scenes, like the occasional glimpse of a reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel and the scenes filmed outside or near the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the Papal summer residence in the lovely countryside close to Rome, simply stunning.