Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writer: Anthony McCarten; based on The Pope by Anthony McCarten
Cinematographer: César Charlone
Producer: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich, and Tracey Seaward
by Jon Cvack
With a horrible and misleading title that I think makes most people assume the movie is simply about two old men talking, i’s once the opening credits role and you see Fernando Mereilles as director that you realize that, although likely still about two old men talking, it’s going to be done with all the energy required to avoid boredom.
The movie opens after the death of John Paul II as the Vatican votes on the new pope. In a sequence straight out of a Michael Bay film we see the various Arch Bishops cast their ballots, failing to get the proper majority of votes; the votes tallied by dropping wooden balls into various containers, then weaving a red string through the individual names. After a few rounds, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) is selected to become Pope Benedict XVI.
Years later, one of the Cardinal’s Jorge Mario Bergogliowho (Jonathan Pryce) - who may or may not have voted for Benedict - is called in to meet the pope. I rewatched this scene before writing this, as it was the moment that hooked me into the movie. Until this point I was still ambivalent, unsure if this was going to be a grind or not. Watching it alone, I realized that this movie isn’t so much about two popes so much as two ideologies, and that this movie is very much a look at our - and the world’s - current political divide.
In a brilliant sequence where each exchange warrants discussion, the two men sit in the garden. Benedict asks Jorge about some of his recent criticisms against the church; starting with the fact that the Cardinal refuses to live in the Vatican Palace. Jorge responds that he wanted a simpler life, to which Benedict strikes back stating that his desire for a simpler life implies that the Pope and other Cardinals should live simpler lives. Jorge gets the last word in by asking if anyone could. A point difficult to refute.
They continue on with Benedict accusing Jorge of being his leading critic, going on to ask about the various statements Jorge had made regarding celibacy and homosexuality. Jorge defends it as being misquoted until Benedict suggests he tell the press what he actually thinks so no one misunderstands him. They continue the debate and Jorge explains how he sees the world forever changing. The church being one of the finest examples. Marriage amongst priests only started in the twelfth century, celibacy in the fifth, and angels in the fourth; point being that the things the church now holds sacred didn’t even exist at the birth of Christianity.
Benedict wonders if God changes to which Jorge says of course, and that it is our journey on this changing Earth that we hope we can one day meet him. It’s perhaps the greatest explanation of one’s relationship to God I’ve heard; a point made all the more poignant when later in the film, Benedict explains that he hasn’t heard God’s voice in weeks; afraid He might be gone, or have never existed.
Benedict continues inviting Jorge over for various discussions. I’m certain revisiting the film would allow each and everyone one of these interactions to warrant extensive discussion, but for the sake of a first viewing, the story continues on to reveal Benedict’s pending retirement and hope that Jorge could become the new pope; believing that Jorge’s progressive ideas could provide the type of reform required to expand patronage. We’re unsure whether it was the abuse scandal, the accusations of Nazi ancestry, lowering attendance, or a loss of faith, but as Jorge mentions, he’d be the first pope to resign without external pressure since Celestine V in 1294. Benedict retains that his decision was based on his old age.
Throughout the film we watch as the men share wine and music. Benedict reveals his skills at the piano and love of The Beatles while Jorge mentions his passion for soccer. They look past their ideological differences and into what brings them together; as servants of God hoping to guide the world away from sin and toward virtue.
However, we also get a look at Jorge’s checkered past, having served in Argentina during the right-wing uprising which resulted in the rounding up and execution of political dissidents. Being a liberal Jesuit, he ordered his priests to shut down their parishes to prevent further bloodshed, destroying numerous relationships in the process as the priests accused him of capitulating to the right-wing government.
It’s a demonstration of the type of compromise the film promotes. Jorge may not have agreed with the far right regime, but he wasn’t prepared to allow additional death. It poses a tricky question as to how to stand up to violent extremism. Either you can die by physical fights, or you can die by the intellectual ones. Do your best to change things from the inside; especially if you’re approaching it from a pro-life perspective.
Eventually, Jorge becomes Pope Francis and Benedict resigns. The two allegedly retain a friendship; the film ends with the two watching the World Cup featuring their respective homelands, Argentina and Germany. We’re not sure why Francis supported Jorge. The cynic makes me think that, for the church, he knew it’d need a significant shift. On the other hand, he might have grasped the ideas that Jorge expressed; that the God and therefore the church are always changing, and to commit oneself to a particular ideology is to appeal to a narrower and narrower set of people.
It doesn’t take much to extend the ideas to our own politics. As of this writing, tonight the Republican Party voted to deny additional witnesses at Donald Trump’s first impeachment. It’s an enraging and terrifying moment, in which there’s no other explanation than politics - that is, their own careers - that can explain the decision. John Bolton’s testimony is risky. They have spent the last two months criticizing the witnesses for failing to have firsthand knowledge. John Bolton can provide that and has confirmed the accusations, but they have no desire to make that public.
Then again, in an effort to take a lesson from The Two Popes, perhaps they know Bolton’s book and subsequent media blitz is inevitable and whatever he talked about behind closed doors will be revealed afterwards. Even with his testimony - no matter how damning - there’d never be a conviction. They are aware of the hypocrisy and understood the risk. Putting this up nearly two years later, they succeeded short term. Most people I’m sure can’t even remember what the first impeachment was even about.
Conservatives by their very name are Benedict in this case. They see a nation that is changing and are failing to adapt; leaning further and further into their white, Christian base. There’s a David Frum quote going around, “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” If too many people are voting for someone you disagree with, prevent their votes from being worth as much. Publishing this about a year later, we’re now seeing this exact action in Texas, Florida, and dozens of other Republican led state governments.
It requires taking logic to its very end. First you have to convince people of illegal voting and fraud, and then if experts question that premise, call out the experts as partisan. It demands division. It thrives on us versus them; all the more inflamed when it creates a vicious spiral and both sides believe the other is destroying the country.
The Two Popes portrays a movie about an ideology that is forced to change and adapt; to see the other side as desiring an equally virtuous outcome. It calls for a time of bipartisanship and empathy. All matters aside of how the Vatican is structured compared to liberal government, it shows the beauty and humility in trying to understand. Of course, Donald Trump is a foul and disgusting human being, and until he’s gone, I don’t think any of this is possible. As Benedict hasn’t heard God, we have to bide our time and retain hope that the journey provides brighter times ahead. In full honesty, I’m becoming increasingly unsure. Fortunately, I was wrong, though I'm not sure for how long.
BELOW: Talking progress
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.