On Viewing “The Two Popes”.

Source: churchPOP

Perhaps because I am an old guy I enjoyed “The Two Popes”, a movie that features two old guys talking to each other with no violence, no beautiful women, and no intergalactic space ships. What the movie does offer is superb actors, excellent writing and directing, and magnificent sets.

To obtain the best images, the famous Sistine Chapel was rebuilt in a lot in Rome. Scenes of the popes speaking from the balcony to throngs of people in the Vatican Square are a digital creation, not the real thing. The movie features very good photography, appropriate music, and some interesting historical and theological questions.

“The Two Popes” is based on the events leading to the  February 28, 2013 resignation of 86 year old Pope Benedict XVI – ,previously the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins, the evil Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 Oscar winning movie  “Silence of the Lambs”.

The movie also covers the election several weeks later of his ten year younger successor, Pope Francis, previously Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Jonathan Pryce from the TV series Game of Thrones plays  Bergoglio. Though both actors are Welsh they are heard speaking in Italian, Spanish, German and Latin in parts of the movie.

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, famous for the 2003 movie “City of God”, claims that there were three real meetings between the two men, but no record exists of what they said. Meirelles said he tried to show the two popes not in terms of dry theology, but in a more intimate way that showed their humanity.

The screen writer for “The Two Popes” is New Zealand born Anthony McCarten, known for writing such movies as the 2018 “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the story of Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the British rock band “Queen”(whose song “We will, we will rock you ….we are the champions! “has become almost a hockey anthem.)

McCarten says he was raised in “an intensely Catholic family”, and that although much of the movie is based on historical events, some events were fictionalized. He says, “What you do is you speculate…hopefully that speculation is based on facts and the truth, and hopefully it’s inspired.”

After researching the lives of the two popes McCarten says “…I opened doors and got them into the same room and contrived a conversation, a debate between a conservative and a progressive, because I thought that might be interesting because there’s huge polarization between these two camps.”

At first both men debate and attempt to rebut each other’s statements. Eventually though, they begin to actually listen to what the other is worried about. Cardinal Bergoglio is weary of his job as a cardinal in strife torn Argentina and wants to resign and become an ordinary parish priest.

Beginning in 1976 and lasting till 1983, an American supported military junta had overseen the “disappeance” and death of perhaps 30,000 Argentinians. As the superior of the Jesuits,  Bergoglio faced charges by some Argentinians of collaborating with the junta.

At this point in the movie, documentary film show the horror of real life during the time of the “Dirty War” in Argentina, inter-spliced with movie footage of the young Bergoglio .

To his surprise, Bergoglio learns that 86 year old Pope Benedict also wants to resign from his job as pope. Why? Interestingly the movie provides little of the pope’s “dark night of the soul”.

We see and hear nothing of Joseph Ratzinger’s life as a 14 year old boy who was required to join the Hitler Youth in 1939. He was drafted into an anti-aircraft group and then into the infantry. Ratzinger deserted the army but was placed in a Prisoner of War Camp in March 1945.

Shortly after the war, both he and his brother George entered a seminary. Oddly, the acclaimed 2019 movie “JoJo Rabbit” shows what the Hitler Youth could do to such a young man.  “The Two Popes” screen writer claims that although most people work hard and selfishly for the church, the present huge enormity of the church’s failings troubled Benedict deeply.

This is the climax and perhaps the most simple and beautifully written part of the movie. Bergoglio reminds Ratzinger “The truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable”. Both men hear each other’s confession, and with his sins forgiven each man’s humanity is redeemed.

As the movie ends and the credits roll, we see the two men/popes happily watching a soccer game between Argentina and Germany.

I was able temporarily to suspend my sense of disbelief while watching this movie. Jonathan Pryce who plays Pope Francis, says that although he is “ not religious at all “, he found the movie to be inspirational, especially at this time when our world should be building bridges, not walls. I enjoyed and recommend this movie.


Richard Grover is a retired history and religion teacher from St. Paul's High School in Winnipeg.

  • Monica S.
    Posted at 10:27h, 27 February Reply

    Thanks for this very well-written review; interesting to read that the screen-writer also wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Benedict’s decision to retire was so seismic – I remember calling my mother and asking her “Did you hear the news? Pope Benedict retired!” And after a moment she said “Pope Benedict died?” Her mind just didn’t compute a pope retiring. I hope to see this film. Thanks again for an interesting review.

  • Margaret (Peggy) Wilson
    Posted at 10:54h, 27 February Reply

    Thank you! You nailed it. It was a beautiful movie about truth, love, building bridges and redemption in our humanity. I have found all these things in my Catholic faith. I have been blessed to be in a loving parish, supported by women who live their faith and lovingly share it. And then I have my friends outside the church who have looked upon my Catholicism and my choice of living it with tolerance and total confusion as to why I do so. Thankfully this movie was on Netflix and interestingly enough their adolescent and young adult children, through this beautiful movie, are quite interested in it. Art has always been such a beautiful part of the Christian faith and this well written, well acted and well presented movie certainly qualifies and inspires.

  • Michael Radcliffe
    Posted at 11:23h, 27 February Reply

    Mike Radcliffe

    Good review Richard and the movie is truly inspirational.

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