The Two Popes is a spiritually keen marvel. It wades into the deep: the difficulties of being merely human while navigating a spiritual journey.
As the title suggests, the film concerns itself with the relationship—initially tense—between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis).
It is 2005, and Pope John Paul II has died. Now cardinals gather to vote. They choose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, played by Anthony Hopkins.
Ratzinger is an academic, praised for intelligence, who sees his mission as returning the church to a conservative perch. Despite his smarts, however, trouble shakes his tenure when seven years later the VatiLeaks erupts. The Vatican issues include financial dealings and gay blackmail—along, of course, with the church abuse cover-up.
The Pope and Cardinal Bergoglio meet again. Pope Benedict determines to step down, citing age and concern about his stay costing his church. Would Cardinal Bergoglio consider being pope? The cardinal is aghast; the doorway for a pope to leave office is death. For context, Benedict’s departure would be the first volitional exit since 1294.
There’s something else. Bergoglio wants to retire. In fact, this is why he has arrived in Italy. The last thing he wants is to be pope. And so these spiritual leaders argue, and when their arguing softens, they talk and share and lament.
“The hardest thing is to listen, to hear his voice, to hear God’s voice,” admits Pope Benedict.
“I’m sorry—even for a pope?” asks Bergoglio.
“Especially for a pope.”
Their friendship grows. The Pope plays piano, and later Bergoglio teaches him what he knows, the tango. Still, Bergoglio resists the Pope.
Finally, the Cardinal reveals what he believes disqualifies him: the stones in his soul. Bergoglio recounts his experiences in Argentina’s Dirty War, the Epoch of Disappearance where 30,000 vanished. He painfully asks, “Where was I? And where was Christ?”
Pope Benedict understands. “It’s not easy to entrust ourselves to God’s mercy.”
The film scrolls through time: backward and forward and then back again. This anchors Bergoglio in his back story and explains his humility and love. Even those less familiar with Bergoglio may recall St. Francis of Assisi and his call to rebuild the church. Touchpoints remind us and alert us to this.
The leads and their acting performances have been noticed; both have been nominated for Golden Globes and now Oscars. The resonance of Anthony Hopkins vibrates to perfect pitch. Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce plays Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio understated and true. His is a wide collection of work, theater and screen, which includes the recent The Wife with Glen Close.
Director Fernando Meirelles is a Brazilian Catholic known for movies like City of God, 360, and The Constant Gardener.
Some Catholic reviews have pointed out that there are many liberties taken here—this is a fictional account of a real relationship, after all. Hopefully, Protestants and Catholics alike can enjoy this movie for what it is, a deeply spiritual, if fictional, film with its message that being human and loving God is no easy thing (Netflix).
About the Author
Cynthia Beach is the author of the novel The Surface of Water and Creative Juices for Writers. She is a longtime English professor at Cornerstone University and cofounder of Scriptoria: An Interfaith Writing Workshop with Gary Schmidt (scriptoriaworkshop.org). Visit her at cynthiabeach.com.