Netflix’s The Two Popes is a strange mix of fact and fiction, craftsmanship and lack of research or understanding. The film, which received three Oscar nominations (best actor for Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Cardinal Bergoglio, best supporting actor for Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict, and best adapted screenplay by well-respected biopic screenwriter Anthony McCarten), centers around an imaginary encounter that takes place between the soon-to-be Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before he announces his retirement. For those who are more familiar with both popes, the shallow portrayal of Pope Benedict is not just disappointing but so false that it detracts from the story’s believability, while the portrayal of Cardinal Bergoglio has much more depth and sympathy, including several flashbacks to significant events in his earlier life. In many respects, the film feels like a tribute to Pope Francis; unfortunately, it does this by contrasting him favorably with a “straw man” version of Pope Benedict—someone who is just a shadow of the real man and pope. For those less familiar with the Church and the individual popes, the film could easily reinforce unhelpful stereotypes of the Church and both popes.
The film has many strong points artistically: strong performances and high production values with details in the costumes and sets that made me wonder if the filmmakers had somehow gotten inside the Vatican, especially the impressive reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. The close-up camera work gives an intimate feel to the story.
The two well-known actors who play the leads—Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict—both received Oscar nominations for their performances. It is to their credit that they carry the majority of the film with their dialogue, a reflection of the film’s stage-play origins. Although a few lines made me smile, overall the script lacked nuance and in-depth research. For much of the first half of the film, the dialogue focuses on the few topics that the media often assume are most important (or at least more controversial), rather than the grave concerns that both real popes have brought to the fore as most urgent to the Church and the world today. And while some of the lines of dialogue are the actual words of Pope Francis or the Pope Emeritus, they are taken out of context. A poorly researched script and story such as this doesn’t deserve to begin with the words, “Inspired by true events,” even taking into account the conventions of cinema and the needs of drama.
Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of Pope Francis quite convincing, imitating Pope Francis’ mannerisms and projecting an openness to others that feels genuine. Hopkins gives a good performance, portraying a gradual transformation from a leader who is elderly, rigid, and “out of touch” to someone who re-learns how to joke and trust. But this portrayal is so far from what we know of the real Pope Benedict XVI (who is well known as a soft-spoken scholar whose massive gifts of intellect, insight, and passion for Christ are enhanced by his gentle manner and clarity of expression). The portrayal is not only unflattering but is also so unlike the real Pope Emeritus that it detracts from the ending of communion and reconciliation that is the high point of the film.
Because the film mixes actual footage and some accurate information with an imaginary encounter between the two churchmen, it could be hard for most viewers to distinguish what is blatantly inaccurate or untrue. An initial example: the film shows Anthony Hopkins actively seeking election to become pope, when we know that, even before his election as pope, the real Cardinal Ratzinger asked Pope St. John Paul to retire more than once.
In addition, the uneven treatment of the two popes makes for a much poorer story. By setting up a superficial disagreement or antagonism between the two characters, the filmmakers are not just unfair to both real popes (who are both great churchmen who have contributed so much to the Church and the world). The filmmakers lose the creative opportunity for telling a deeper, more dramatic story free of stereotypes: that of two spiritually mature men who have both dedicated their lives to Christ, who approach the needs of the world and the Church in contrasting (not contradictory) ways.
The film’s portrayal of Cardinal Bergoglio has some depth and sympathetic moments, where Hopkins’ Pope Benedict is superficial: a cranky old man who needs this one encounter with Bergoglio to hear the voice of God. The filmmakers’ bias toward Pope Francis is most clearly revealed in the decision to show several flashbacks of two key moments in Bergoglio’s early life, while the film offers no flashbacks for Pope Benedict. This decision gives the audience no opportunity to develop a deeper sympathy for the difficulties Pope Benedict faced in his early life. It also makes obvious that this film is meant to be a sympathetic tribute to Pope Francis, which would be more convincing if it were more accurate in both portrayals, especially of Pope Emeritus Benedict. In a few early moments in the film, the actor playing Cardinal Bergoglio seems to poke fun at customs of Hopkins’ Pope Benedict; this is a disservice to both real popes: a deep respect for all cultures has been quite important to the real Pope Francis.
Windows to the Soul?
However, the value of the film (as well as evidence of the filmmakers’ goodwill) is evident in the development of the story itself. If we lift the dialogue out of these characters’ mouths and place it in another situation, in other mouths, then the film offers some helpful insights into how honesty, respectful dialogue, a commitment to Christ, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation can lead to deeper communion and a unified approach to doing what is best for the world and the Church. I found it helpful to listen to the dialogue as representing various voices in the Church and culture, with different concerns and emphases. In our society today that often focuses on extremism and intolerance for those who believe differently and hold different values, The Two Popes points to a path of reconciliation and communion.
Ultimately, despite its Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, The Two Popes lacks the depth and authenticity that would make this a well-done biopic, or even an adequate depiction. The likelihood that many people who see it will either not take the time to sort fact from fiction (or error), or will simply accept the stereotypes, is problematic. At the same time, The Two Popes is an interesting portrayal of the Church from not-so-well-informed but somewhat sympathetic secular media makers. The power and beauty of the spirituality of encounter, so essential to Pope Francis’ entire papacy, is well represented here. And perhaps that is the film’s true tribute to Pope Francis.
For contrasting and thoughtful commentaries on The Two Popes, see Bishop Barron’s The One Pope and Sr. Nancy Usselman’s take, The Two Popes—Growing in Communion. For a “Vatican insider’s” perspective on the film’s accuracy, check out The Two Popes: Baloney, Brilliantly Acted by George Weigel.