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Film Commentary: 'The Two Popes'

By Gary Keene

The two popes poster

The Two Popes is a delightful journey into spiritual awareness that pulls us in with deep questions and a light touch. At a sideways glance, it seems to be a mini-documentary of the radical ecclesial transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis in 2013. Benedict was the first to resign from the papacy on his own initiative since 1294, and the movie tracks their meetings and conversations leading into Francis’ election.

The dialogue is cranky at first, as befits two older authority figures who disagree sharply on the purpose and practices of the church. But ecclesiology soon gives way to theology, and then call and confession and blessing and bonding over sports and pizza. Along the way, rich questions of faith found and lost and rebuilt are explored through two of the finest actors of our time—Anthony Hopkins (Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce* (Francis).

The devil is in the details though, literally: one of the pizzas they order and devour is an Italian staple, the Diavola, the Devil’s pizza (spicy sausage and hot peppers, for the record). More crucially, while the two did meet briefly prior to Francis’ election, there were none of the in-depth encounters shown, and all of their lengthy, chewy, heartfelt dialogue is raw speculation on the part of brilliant screenwriter Anthony McCarten (look him up).

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Anthony Hopkins (L) as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce (R) as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Netflix’s “The Two Popes”. Credit: Netflix

And yet, the scripted dialogue is drawn straight from their public speeches and writings. McCarten’s gift is to not just juxtapose their ideas and positions, but to ground those in very human experience. From this he nourishes a visceral sensitivity to what it means to hear the voice of God and give one’s self fully to not only seeking God, but leading others in doing so. Early on, Benedict receives Cardinal Bergolio (Francis-to-be), who is himself eager to tender his resignation because he can no longer “be a salesman for a product I do cannot endorse.” The Pope hushes him saying,

Let us be quiet together . . . (silence) . . . The hardest thing to do is to listen . . . for his voice. Even for a Pope? Especially for a pope. When I was young, I know what purpose he had for me. Now, I don’t know. Perhaps I need to listen more intently. What do you think, Cardinal Bergolio?”

“Umm . . .”

“Yes, I think perhaps I need a spiritual hearing aid. Who does know? When I first heard that voice, it brought me peace, such peace . . . now? AH! You must have felt that at the beginning?”

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Scene from Netflix’s “The Two Popes”. Credit: Netflix

It should be impossible for any clergy (of any faith) to not feel these two men’s stories in their own bones. That their stories weave them together under the global weight of the papacy is even more daunting—and exhilarating.

Along the way, wonderfully provocative quotes zip by: “Sin is a wound, not a stain, it must be healed.” “A church that marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next.” “The bigger the sinner, the warmer the welcome.” “Communion not a reward for the virtuous but food for the starving.”

It should be impossible for any clergy (of any faith) to not feel these two men’s stories in their own bones. That their stories weave them together under the global weight of the papacy is even more daunting—and exhilarating.

And when Benedict tosses off a reason for his resignation saying, “God corrects one pope by showing another: I’d like to see my correction,” what pastor/spiritual leader does not identify?

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The devil is in the details though, literally: one of the pizzas they order and devour is an Italian staple, the Diavola, the Devil’s pizza (spicy sausage and hot peppers, for the record). Credit: Netflix

While it sounds thick in the telling here, that’s not how Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles shows us the story. His is a light touch, building on a witty script, greatly enhanced by a lively soundtrack, with plenty of musical winks along the way. Early on, as the cardinals solemnly file in to vote on the next pope, the music playing is Abba’s “Dancing Queen”—whose lyrics, lest we forget, include, “Friday night and the lights are low / you come to look for a king / anybody could be that guy.”

By the film’s closing, intercut with actual images of the two popes together, we’ve seen both men made, unmade, and re-made in their search to fulfill God’s calling. One is tempted to identify most closely with the personable Francis, a self-proclaimed reformer of the church Benedict so rigidly protects. Yet the story of Eli and Samuel (1 Samuel 3) suggests something more paradoxical – that it took both men to fully hear the voice of God through each other, so that it could be spoken afresh in the world today.

Since you’re stuck at home anyway, order enough pizza to see this one twice, and don’t forget the orange Fanta (Benedict’s actual favorite).

*Old schoolers will appreciate that Pryce also played the lead in 1985’s “Brazil,” another troubled soul doing fruitless battle with an unyielding bureaucratic institution.



Synopsis

At a key turning point for the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI forms a surprising friendship with the future Pope Francis. Inspired by true events.

Official Film Website: https://www.netflix.com/title/80174451

Rated PG-13, 2:05; available online: Netflix

The Rev. Gary Keene served as Executive Director of Connectional Ministries and Assistant to four bishops in three annual conferences across five western states. In addition, he served as pastor in congregations “from small to tall”, recently retiring after seven years in his appointment—where movies were a regular feature. Keene will be writing film commentaries on a regular basis for UMCdiscipleship.org. Films reviewed will be currently available, not necessarily blockbuster or even mainstream, with a few recent classics occasionally dropped in. Suggestions welcomed, bring your own popcorn.

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