There’s a scene toward the beginning of the Netflix film The Two Popes that imagines a conversation between Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) — present-day Pope Francis. Bergoglio has come to Rome to ask the pope to accept his resignation as cardinal. Benedict says, “If you resign, it will look like a criticism. The way you live is a criticism. Your shoes are a criticism.”
The Two Popes is also a criticism — of an insular Catholic Church and the real suffering that type of entrenchment can cause. I am not a Catholic, but the film could honestly be a fair critique of Protestant and evangelical churches as well. The film humanizes the two popes, while exploring their different ecclesial emphases: church as an inward-facing haven from the world or church as an outward-facing sojourner.
As a theological critique, The Two Popes offers some thought-provoking contrasts on how Christians are called to live. We are asked to consider whether the church is an unchanging refuge from the chaos and evil of the world, or the manifestation of Christ’s body through the messy lives of human beings. The film makes it obvious that the latter is the better way. During the same imagined conversation between the two popes, they discuss change versus compromise. According to Benedict, “change is compromise,” and he adamantly states that God does not change. Bergoglio counters that God does change — God moves toward us and “we find him on the journey with us.”
The contrasts between the two men evoke the theological emphases of the saints for which they are named. In the film, like St. Benedict, Benedict shares that he found his faith as a hiding place, and the first time he heard God’s voice, it brought him peace. The church offers him refuge from the world. Toward the end of the film, Benedict confesses to Bergoglio, “I’ve sinned against you, Lord, whom I should love above all things. As a child I failed you first by not having the courage to taste life itself. Instead I hid away in books and study. I know now this left me empty and void of the world in which the church is meant to help.”
The confession is then muted and we are made to understand that Benedict confesses his role in covering up the Church’s sex abuse scandals. This scene is incredibly moving and beautiful. Hopkins’ depiction of Benedict is both childlike and world-weary throughout the film, but especially so in that moment.
For Bergoglio though, his call to the priesthood comes through hearing a saxophone playing in a church on his way to plan the details of his wedding. Pryce is given the harder task of taking a beloved figure like Pope Francis and translating him into a human being. The biographical segments of the film show a young Bergoglio (played by Juan Minujín) trying to protect his fellow Jesuits during the military junta in 1970s Argentina. He offers a haven for them if they would stop ministering at their missions. The priests refuse and are ultimately arrested and tortured. Bergoglio is later forced to step down as head of the Jesuits in Argentina for his cooperation with the regime. During his time in a literal wilderness, he realizes that the church is called to go into the world and be part of it with people. He comes back changed, living as simply and humbly as he can as penance.
I was struck that the film never delved into Benedict’s background in the ways that it does for Bergoglio. In an interview with the film’s director, Fernando Meireilles, he pointed out that originally the film was meant to be a biopic about Pope Francis. Still, learning about how a young Joseph Ratzinger came of age during the Weimar Republic and then Nazi Germany would have helped the viewer understand why he saw faith as a hiding place.
There are many charming moments that balance out the two men throughout The Two Popes. Pryce brings Bergoglio down to earth as a flawed and humbled leader. Hopkins softens the image of a scold that is so often attributed to Benedict. In one scene, Benedict shares his favorite TV show, Kommissar Rex, with Bergoglio, who watches with surprised amusement. Later in the film, the two popes eat pizza and drink orange Fanta (supposedly Benedict’s favorite), offering each other absolution. During the credits, both popes watch the 2014 World Cup and trash talk each other’s teams. These sweet moments remind us that behind the pomp and circumstance, these are two men trying to love God and their flock as best they can.
The Two Popes is certainly ambitious, as any depiction of sacred and controversial men would be. It tries to do a lot, and falters in some places. As in life, there is grace throughout the film and much to contemplate, regardless of your theological inclinations or love of orange Fanta.