Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Two Popes: A Review


Their Holinesses Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are at polar ends of the theological spectrum. Judging from The Two Popes, it is clear that the production favors one side, so much so that it is less an exploration of these two different men at a crossroads of Catholic Church history and more a case for the canonization of one, the demonization of the other.

Essentially a two-man show (unsurprisingly), The Two Popes chronicles the election of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to succeed the late Pope John Paul II. Now as Pope Benedict XVI, he faces a wealth of issues within and without the Holy See.

There is a most reluctant member of the College of Cardinals waiting in the wings: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). He's the antithesis of Benedict: while His Holiness is chilly, intellectual and aloof, Jorge is a soccer-loving man of the people. He also loved in the carnal sense, as The Two Popes give us extended flashbacks to his youth in Buenos Aires, where as a young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) he came close to marrying Esther (Maria Ucedo) before God intervened.

Bergoglio, who came close to being elected instead of Ratzinger, wants to retire, but Benedict has a surprise for him: he won't accept Bergoglio's retirement because it is Benedict who wants to quit! As these two old men talk and discuss the impact of Benedict contemplating resigning the Papacy, Bergoglio must confront his own past during the Argentinian so-called "Dirty War". Bergoglio tried to keep a balance between working with the military dictatorship and his calling to the Faith, but was not successful at it. These two lions in winter absolve each other of their sins: Bergoglio of his ineffective dealings with dictators, Benedict of knowingly keeping sexually abusive priests in positions of influence.

At last, Benedict retires and now-Pope Francis comes forth to bring his (or maybe His) Divine Light to the world.

The Two Popes' Review | Hollywood ReporterAs I am not Catholic I have no stake or interest in the theological struggles within Catholicism. I judge a film based on what is presented, but in this case, I do wonder whether Anthony McCarten's screenplay (adapting his play The Pope) ever even tried to be evenhanded. The Two Popes is so clearly & nakedly besotted and passionately in love with Bergoglio and his liberal theology that it turns almost pornographic in its idolatry of Francis.

We see this from the beginning, where Bergoglio's almost excessive humility beggars belief. Despite having been elected Pontifex Maximus, successor to St. Peter, God's Representative on Earth, Pope Francis still insists on trying to book his own flight. I can believe that a man can be humble enough to decline elaborate garb upon being made Head of the Catholic Church. I'm not quite prepared to think said Head of the Catholic Church is so thoroughly clueless and guileless that he was not aware the Holy Father had a summer residence.

Yet The Two Popes continues this worship of Pope Francis and his worldview: his passion for eliminating income inequality and saving the environment. The film celebrates this Francis: a simple man of the people who is devoted to both St. Lorenzo and the St. Lorenzo soccer team, who cheerily whistles Dancing Queen before entering the Conclave.

The Two Popes review - a thrilling, delicate balance of drama and ...
As a side note, the Francis who has made clear there will be no support for female ordination, abortion or same-sex marriages in a Catholic Church is not so much as even hinted at.

It is a stark contrast to The Two Popes portrayal of Ratzinger, a man thoroughly unaware of who Abba is and appears to think Dancing Queen is a hymn about the Virgin Mary. We see Bergoglio cheering on Argentina during soccer matches, while Benedict comments he does not get the appeal of soccer at all. His Holiness prefers to watch Kommisar Rex, a German show about a crime-solving dog. We see Pope Benedict playing the piano and noting he played in the same studio as The Beatles. When Bergoglio mentions Eleanor Rigby in response, Benedict remarks he does not know who she is. If one judged Benedict and Francis on the film alone, one would leave with the impression that while Bergoglio is a fun-loving, tango-dancing yet almost insanely humble to almost pure figure, Benedict is suffering from dementia at best, downright bonkers at worst.

The Two Popes thinks it is showing an equal exploration of two men of the same faith whose theology led them to radically different conclusions, but the deck is so clearly stacked in Bergoglio's favor one would be forgiven in thinking he, not McCarten, wrote the screenplay. Even in their theological debates, which should be a true battle of wits, the script never gave Benedict anything close to even a semi-coherent answer to Bergoglio's sympathetic and rational brand of liberation theology.

Netflix's The Two Popes review: The Godd coupleCompassionate Marxism, perhaps? Communism with a Catholic Face?

Again, what either Benedict or Francis believe is the Church's own business. It is the film's refusal to give one side even a modicum of a chance that I find troubling.

Another aspect I found a problem was the extended Buenos Aires sequences (as a side note, the fact that Ratzinger himself lived through a dictatorship as a child during the Nazi era is given the most cursory and obscure of mentions). Bergoglio can only shake his head when a fellow Argentine football fan calls Benedict "a Nazi", but does not bother to defend Benedict, a sharp contrast to how The Two Popes works to bring nuance to Bergoglio's troubled relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship to where it veers dangerously close to being an apologia for Francis.

Yet I digress.

The extended flashbacks drown the film to near tedium, though through no fault of the actors. Instead, director Fernando Meirelles indulges in long black-and-white sequences and in scenes that might have run shorter or included in dialogue. These scenes bloat the film to a little over two hours and frankly made it feel even longer. The shaky-cam that aims for an intruder-style method also pushes the film down. It becomes an irritant more than anything.

The Two Popes to be fair is well-acted. Pryce and Hopkins play the parts exactly as written: humble, loving Francis and tottering Benedict. They do bring a few moments of levity when the script allows them a chance to play these men as actual humans: neither the saintly Bergoglio or clueless Ratzinger. It's in those moments of shared humanity when we see Pryce and Hopkins really excel. Minujin as the younger Bergoglio does well too, his mix of compassion and doubt and fear blending well. It is a pity though that Minujin's version was given more attention than perhaps he should have been.

The Two Popes struck me as unfair to Benedict XVI and too sympathetic to Francis. What could have been an exploration of these two men, united and divided by faith, instead was Francis-worship gone bonkers. In his efforts at humanity, Benedict remarks on his quip, "A German joke. It doesn't have to be funny". Perhaps, but The Two Popes was not as funny or insightful as it thinks either.

The Two Popes: 'Vatican buddy movie' is Hollywood fiction, say ...
Pope Francis: Born 1936
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Born 1927


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