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Vision: The Two Popes

Sarah Penwarden —

Release date: November 2019, Directed by: Fernando Meirelles, Screenplay by: Anthony McCarten, Available on: Netflix

The word obedient comes from “the Latin audire, which means ‘to listen.’”[1] While we are all called to be followers of Christ, at some time in our life we might hear a particular call to a specific ministry. Acknowledging this calling can require discernment, not only by the person called, but by their church and significant others. This discernment might not mean “fully comprehending God’s will, but rather it raises the question, [w]hat is the next step God wants me to take?”[2] Many of those who minister may have wrestled with the questions of “am I good enough to do this?” and “is this what God is really saying?” “The Two Popes,” released as a film in 2019 but still available on Netflix, highlights the mystery of hearing God and being called.

The film, directed by Brazilian Meirelles (City of God) and written by New Zealander Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody) focuses on the lead up to the abdication crisis of Pope Benedict XVI. It features a series of imagined conversations between Benedict and Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis. Both men come to the conversation with private agendas. Bergoglio is considering resigning from his post. Benedict is facing a secret crisis in his own calling and an interest in meeting the man who might just become his successor. Through the meetings, one can see the conflicting personalities of the two men: Benedict, the crusty academic and conservative traditionalist, and Bergoglio, the beloved progressive, who hums ABBA songs, loves football and tango, and says mass in shantytowns.[3] “I disagree with everything you say!” Benedict barks at Bergoglio at one point, as they strongly conflict in their visions of where the Catholic church needs to go.

This is a film about two men who carry the weight of the faithful on their shoulders andwho are also wrestling with inner questions of calling. It is all surprisingly riveting. A film, most of which “is taken up by two elderly men politely wrestling with theology,” has garnered glowing reviews in mainstream media.[4] This may be due in part to the virtuosic acting of Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and an uncannily lookalike Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio.

It is all imagined of course. The film is described as being “inspired by true events.” The conversations between the two Popes are based on “a kind of conjecture on the part of the filmmakers” who drew on the two men’s perspectives from their own writing, in a desire “to fill a historical gap.”[5] Even the scenes within the Sistine Chapel were recreated as part of one of Rome’s Cinecittà studios.[6] Yet much of it rings true. In particular, the film highlights some potential conflicts about being called: to wonder if one is worthy of it, and to strive to continue to hear the voice of God while in ministry.

In one of the film’s key scenes, it is Pope Benedict who discloses something startling: that he has stopped being able to hear God. It is in him considering renouncing the papacy that has he begun to hear God again. We all have crucial points in spiritual journeys, but what if you are the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion people and realise you are being called to give it up? A Pope resigning from the papacy, “was one of the biggest plot twists the Catholic Church had ever seen – he was the first to do so in almost 600 years.”[7] In the film, we see his wrestling with this enormous decision and with the potential for the progressive Bergoglio to be his likely successor. Benedict shares his private conflict with Bergoglio, who is horrified by both ideas.

It is here that the film then touches on another human theme unworthiness. We see Bergoglio’s struggle to comprehend that this might be a new call for him. Through flashbacks, we see a background to this struggle his own guilt at having been unable to protect his priests from being tortured and killed by the military junta while he was head of the Jesuits in Buenos Aires.[8] In this way, the film highlights a tension between human weakness, which we all have while we are in ministry, and particular sins of omission or commission that may blight or even discredit a person’s ministry. As well as raising Bergoglio’s inactions which may have led to the death of others, the film also hints at Pope Benedict confessing to his own inability to respond adequately to a child abuse scandal. The two men offer forgiveness and absolution to each other. The film thus raises questions about the line between human frailty – and forgiveness of this – and moral or even criminal negligence. It also gets to the heart of the dilemma of having a ministry with an immense public profile, while also the person in it being riven with doubts and inner conflicts.

As a film, it is luminous in the artistry of its direction and lighting, and also in the acting stars of Hopkins and Pryce. Yet there are some flaws. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s past slow the pace and feel disruptive of the narrative. Also, there has been some critique about the manner in which the child sexual abuse scandal was hinted at by Pope Benedict. Some criticism was targeted at the filmmakers as being “rather coy in addressing some of the more damning elements in recent Catholic history.”[9] Criticism also came from a Catholic reviewer who baulked at the same scene.[10] However, other voices within the Vatican responded very warmly the film.[11]

As a viewer, I warmed to the portrayal of Bergoglio as a man of the people, both ordinary and compassionate. Other viewers were taken by Hopkins’ portrayal:

Hopkins, a bit of a historic hambone himself, cedes all the big gestures to Pryce and stealthily does some of his craftiest acting in years. He mutters and whispers, sighs and fidgets, and turns Benedict from a presumed villain into an almost tragic figure, a brilliant theoretical mind tethered to a complex and troubled soul. You may like Francis better – “The Two Popes” assumes, or maybe insists, that you will – but Benedict is the one who stays with you.[12]

“The Two Popes” is a film to savour; to invite reflection on our own spiritual journey as we watch others wrestle with theirs. It is a film to help remind us that a calling to ministry is given not because of one’s own adequacy, but by grace through faith. We just need to remember to listen.

Sarah Penwarden is a senior lecturer in the Counselling programme at Laidlaw College. She is also a therapist and supervisor in private practice. She is married to David, and lives in leafy Titirangi where she is an active member of an Anglican church. 

[1]Suzanne Farnham, Joseph Gill, Taylor McLean, Susan Ward, Listening Hearts: Discerning God’s Call in Community (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 13.

[2]Farnham, Listening Hearts, 25.

[3] Wyre Davies, “Pope Francis visits shanty town” BBC (July 25, 2013), https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-23458944.

[4] Wendy Ide, “The Two Popes review – Hopkins and Pryce make one holy alliance” Guardian (Dec 1, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/01/the-two-popes-review-anthony-hopkins-jonathan-pryce-netflix.

[5] Alejandro de la Garza, “The True Story Behind the Movie The Two Popes”, TIME (Dec 20, 2019), https://time.com/5753982/the-two-popes-movie-true-story/.

[6] Peter Travers, “’The Two Popes’: A Face-off of Biblical Proportions” Rolling Stone (Nov 26, 2019), https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/two-popes-netflix-review-916443/.

[7] Clarisse Loughrey, “The Two Popes review: Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce bring levity to papal drama” Independent (Nov 27, 2019), https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/two-popes-review-netflix-anthony-hopkins-jonathan-pryce-cast-a9218001.html.

[8] Jesuitical, “What’s it like to play Pope Francis? An interview with Jonathan Pryce on ‘The Two Popes’” America Magazine (Dec 20, 2019), https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2019/12/20/whats-it-play-ope-francis-interview-jonathan-pryce-two-popes.

[9] Wendy Ide, “The Two Popes review.”

[10] The author of a review in Catholic Daily News described the film as “ill-advisedly try to extol Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) by trashing retired Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).” He concludes that, notwithstanding its “charming moments” and “fine performances by the leads” this does not “compensate adequately for a fast and loose version of recent — or ancient — church history.” John Mulderig, “The Two Popes”, Catholic News Service (Dec 12, 2019), https://www.catholicnews.com/the-two-popes/.

[11] According to Pryce there was a screening of the film, attended by representatives of the Vatican, one of whom wanted to take a DVD to Pope Francis to see, being convinced he would like the film. Jesuitical, Interview with Jonathan Pryce.”

[12] A. O. Scott, “‘The Two Popes’ Review: Double Act at the Vatican” New York Times (Nov 25, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/26/movies/the-two-popes-review.html.