The Two Popes is not so much a picture as it is propaganda. The Netflix original follows the mode of the liberal media, presenting imagined interactions and conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis (when he was Cardinal Bergoglio) that further an agenda that is bent on denouncing the Catholic Church with slick cinematography. Its central flaw in pursuing this end is that the film tries to define these popes—these men—as though it were drawing from the determinations of history and its scholars.
After a sweeping and visually stunning montage of the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the throne of St. Peter, The Two Popes gives a speculative account of a meeting in the Castel Gondolfo garden between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Cardinal Bergoglio has come from Buenos Aires to request permission from the Supreme Pontiff to retire. It is during their sparring interaction that the film shows its cards.
Benedict XVI is portrayed as a curmudgeonly old crank, out of touch with the world, dusty with ancient traditions and stuffy theology; Bergoglio is a dynamic, in-touch, charismatic type with progressive theology, unafraid to question whether the Church can be wrong or whether God can change like the climate. The transparency of this presentation shows the film’s bias clearly, but still it passes itself off as informed by real events, with fast-and-loose “facts” that side more with the papal style of Francis than with that of Benedict XVI.
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The liberal left may shrug and say, “Who are we to judge?”, but their judgments are the loudest.
In a second meeting in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict XVI confides to Cardinal Bergoglio that their conversation has opened his eyes, and that he has determined to resign from the papacy. As they continue to speak, moving to the Room of Tears—the room where every new pope vests after he is elected—Bergoglio shares some of his story with the Pope, recounting his complicated involvement as a Jesuit liaison during the violent military regime of Jorge Videla in Argentina following the 1970s coup d’état. Bergoglio’s account, told through the filmmakers’ lens, certainly makes him a sympathetic and even heroic player, instead of someone who might have some skeletons in his closet.
What follows is central to the problem of this film that poses as historical presentation instead of interpretation. Pope Benedict XVI confesses to Cardinal Bergoglio, and though the film muffles his words, this effect is not applied before we hear the name Marcial Maciel Degollado, the notorious founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. In the context of the whole picture, the implication is clear that Benedict knew of Maciel’s misdeeds and malfeasances and is himself guilty of either negligence or a cover-up, although the actions of the man both as cardinal and pope speak strongly against Benedict having had any involvement with allowing Maciel to abuse his office or his victims. Indeed, he actively worked to discipline Maciel, but was blocked at every turn by the influential priest’s powerful allies in the heirarchy. It is the height of presumption—and even defamatory—to put a false confession into a pope’s (or anyone’s) mouth. This is especially true of a pope who cannot be seen in the larger perspective of history because he is still with us.
Pope Benedict XVI resigns soon after, and Pope Francis steps onto the balcony after pointedly refusing the mozzetta and the red shoes. The crowds cheer. Reform is come at last. The Church can finally move forward out of the Dark Ages. Roll credits. In telling the story of how two very different men can be friends, The Two Popes is bent upon framing the stuff of history before it moves into the realm of history, treating these matters as though they had a legendary quality and these characters with iconic status, which is inappropriate given their place within current events and their being present-day men.
Aside from its theological errors and narrative inaccuracies, the one problem with The Two Popes is that it is fiction that will be taken by most as historical fact. It is dangerous and artistically irresponsible to lace a modern story with elaborate speculation in order to present an opinion or an agenda. This is precisely what The Two Popes does with characters who are not yet dead, let alone at a point where their lives might be judged in the larger context of the times. This requires time.
This problem centers on the way in which The Two Popes disparages Benedict XVI, making him emblematic of all that is wrong with the Catholic Church. The film presents him as a radical: an old man clothed in capes, incurably fixed on forgotten principles of a forgotten world—principles that no longer apply to the “real world.” What it misses is the type of radical that Pope Benedict XVI really was: a wise man clothed in Christ, inspiringly fixed on the roots, radix, of the world—principles that fundamentally apply to the real world. The Two Popes portrays Benedict as a radical in the prevalent negative sense of the word, that is, fanatical and refusing to depart from tradition to affect reform. This latter is the role given to Pope Francis.
Despite the doddering portrayal of Pope Benedict in The Two Popes, he will be remembered by Catholics as radical in the truest sense of the word, devoted to a return to tradition to affect reform. The Two Popes pushes the message that to be a traditionalist is to be stuck in the past. Benedict XVI rejoiced in the past, however, and drove it down deep, like a plow, to cultivate the arid areas of the vineyard; it is a very different way of “making a mess”, to use Pope Francis’s words. Pope Benedict was a radical pope because he clung to the roots of the Faith—and this was his genius, which The Two Popes mistakenly brands as “closed-mindedness.” There is the modern radicalism of change, and then there is the ancient radicalism of holding the line. These two popes embody both, and the film The Two Popes promotes the first of these.
To film a musical about an ex-con named Valjean who lived during the July Monarchy and give that period a certain construction is permissible given the perspective of time. To make a film that takes liberties with the life and personality of Mozart to convey a moral message is excusable, for it will not alter Mozart’s legacy. To judge the July Monarchy or Mozart is one thing. It is another to judge two living men within the eternal context of the Universal Church through the narrow political dichotomy of conservatism and liberalism.
The Two Popes does not merely take artistic liberty to make a point. It takes artistic license to make propaganda. It is odd that the Vatican permitted an enormous billboard for The Two Popes to appear on one of its buildings since the film may not only cause many to believe that its intentional inventions are true but may also color what history—or at least certain historians—will conclude concerning the two popes.
Photo credit: YouTube.com/Netflix