The Two Popes: A Review

On the 13th of March, 2013 at 18:06 UTC, white smoke and the sounding of the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica were the purveyors of good news in Rome. The enlivened crowds rejoiced as the words “Habemus Papam” (“We have a pope”) echoed through the city. Anxiously had they waited for this moment ever since the unexpected announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation to the papacy. Now the wait came to an end, and a new pope had been elected. But little did anyone know that the world was set to have a second surprise. 

At the time, the election of a Latin American pope seemed unlikely. Despite having the largest Catholic population, the region was far too distant from the Holy See to appear like a real contender. Plus, the previous non-European pope (the Syryan Gregory III) had been elected 1,272 years ago, giving no room for any man from the Americas to claim the title ever since. 

But we all know what happened.

Against all odds, Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian, became the pope. And with his election, new things were set to occur for the church and Catholicism at large. 

Nevertheless, an important question arises from the succession of these events: How did this happen? And thus, enter The Two Popes

Directed by the acclaimed Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes is an interesting biographical drama about the lives of Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergolgio, and their respective incursions into the papacy. Now, given this premise and the name of the film, you’d be excused for assuming that this film has two protagonists who enjoy equal treatment plot-wise. And yes, the movie itself would like to make you believe that. But there’s a clear distinction in the way both characters are displayed and, therefore, in what we as an audience perceive from them. 

Right from the start we get to experience things from the perspective of Jorge. An aspect that gives us the queue that this is the character we should root for during the 125 minutes of the film’s running time. And it’s easy to see why, for the Argentinian cardinal is engaging, charismatic and prone to humour. Characteristics that we, as human beings, are naturally drawn to, given that we consider them “good”. 

And then comes Joseph, a cardinal with great political ambitions for the church, but little to no tolerance for the reforms it desperately needs (at least according to the film). In our minds, therefore, he’s envisioned as Jorge’s rival. Or in other words, the “evil” man of the story.

This framing is particularly effective at the beginning, since the film’ provides a reason for them to compete with each other: Both are eligible cardinals to the papacy after the death of Pope John Paul II. However, it rapidly loses its charm, because we’re shown a Jorge that is not only willing to side with and endorse Joseph, but also uninterested in securing this position of immediate power. And this atypical construct leads us to the real conflict of the story: Jorge’s desire to renounce his bishopry. 

As a result, we get acquainted to a protagonist desperate to flee his duties from a church he views as a “product he can no longer sell” (to paraphrase the movie). Surely this should express a feeling of cowardice from him. But once again the framing masterfully plays this to Jorge’s favour, for  in his liberation we see an act of dissidence. A rebellion against the oppressive conservatism of the Catholic church. 

This is a crucial aspect to the conflict, for this clearly says that there’s something wrong with the church. Specifically, with Joseph’s, now Pope Benedict XVI, church and ministry. And that given these circumstances we should be more inclined towards Jorge’s beliefs, because, once again, he’s the “good” one. Even when the movie adds some nuance to his characterisation, we’re quickly reminded of the position he is at. His flaws are merely used as a scheme to turn him into a humbler, almost saint-like figure. So when the time for Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation comes, we are asked to show happiness and feel like this is and always was the right path from the start.

And this takes me back to the question at the start of this essay, to which the film answers that it happened out of need. Particularly, the church’s need to reform itself. Not only in eclesiastical matters, but also in its operations and practices. We shouldn’t forget, after all, that Pope Benedict XVI had to deal with plenty of sexual abuse scandals committed high-ranking church officials. Many of which had abused their power to cover up their cases.  

This is the ground laid down for Jorge (best known today as Pope Francis I) as the film concludes; leaving us under the impression that the church is experimenting better and brighter days. Yet, something struck me as funny in between all the cheers and hope: the presence of Pope Benedict XVI as friend and not an enemy. 

Yes, I understand that the second act of the film pretty much revolves around them getting to that point, but it doesn’t feel entirely earned. Just put some thought to it: First, Jorge goes to Rome so that Joseph (the Pope) will sign his resignation letter. Next, we have a Pope that refuses to do so, under the pretext that doing so would affect the church. Then, we see them both fight over their personal ideas as to how the church should move forward. And at last, they get to have a moment together where Jorge shares his life’s story and Joseph plays the piano before both retire to bed. 

From a biographical point of view, these act is great at building up an arc for Jorge. It fleshes out his identity as a character and he gets to be embraced by us with all his virtues and shortcomings. But what about Joseph? What does it do for him? Well, not so much in terms of character development. All we know is that he’s warming up to Jorge and that he’s a little feeble from age.

Accordingly, when Joseph reveals his intentions to relinquish the papacy to Jorge, believing that it is Jorge and not him the one meant to be pope, it feels like a weak plot twist. We didn’t get to see a Joseph reflexive of his decision to leave. Boy, we didn’t even get a Joseph that showcased why he wanted the papacy so badly in the first place. All we got was a character that got what he wanted and then disliked it to such a degree so as to leave it behind. 

Yes, the problems were there way before Jorge showed up to talk to him, but they were shown as conflicts at large, with all but one scene focusing on the stories set forth by media outlets. And in doing so, the build up to this significant plot point and, by extension, Joseph’s arc wasn’t properly handled.

Ergo, we get to the film’s ending, the two popes’ friendship, besides seeming unlikely, renders the previous heavy disagreements they had as trivial. And added to that is the apparent “moral” for the audience, which argues that we shouldn’t completely shun the past so long as the future seems to be promising. 

Now, I wouldn’t be so harsh upon this epilogue if I knew the film deserved it. But this wasn’t the case. The writers should have committed to having a more fleshed out redemption for Joseph as well as a better justification for the motifs behind his acts, so that the film could end on a solid thesis. But alas, the character shown on screen was this half-baked Joseph that Anthony Hopkins managed to salvage through sheer acting chops. 

Nonetheless, I am not trying to diminish the film and its merits, or to make it seem like it’s not worthy of your time. The Two Popes does have its moments. Really good moments, to be honest. 

As I mentioned before, Pope Francis I’s story is a very compelling ride. Mostly because he is portrayed in an endearing fashion surrounded by great honesty and self-reflection. An aspect that is largely due to the way in which the incredible Jonathan Pryce plays him. Thus, I’ll admit that, had this movie been a biopic, it would have succeeded. 

The problem though is that it’s not. This film isn’t meant to be a vehicle for Pope Francis I. The writers made that clear with the nuances they attempted to add to. But the fact is that they didn’t deliver. They forgot that they had to work on two characters to make things work. And that’s the main flaw this movie has: promising two popes, yet only presenting one. And a half.  

7/10. Recommended for framing and character development studies in film.

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