Two Popes are better than one?

* I don’t think this is a film where spoilers matter, but in case you disagree full spoilers ahead *

Habemus Papam*2

According to the fictional version of Pope Benedict XVI who appears in the Two Popes: “there is an old saying – ‘God always corrects one pope with another’.” This idea of Benedict and his successor as thesis and antithesis animates The Two Popes. However, not in the way you might expect.

When then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Rome in 2012 to appeal directly to the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) for permission to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is surprised to discover the Supreme Pontiff is also considering stepping aside. Neither man is initially sympathetic to the other’s intentions and not only a battle of ideas, but a clash of temperaments ensues. The cerebral traditionalist Pope initially regards everything about the down-to-earth, reform-minded Cardinal as a challenge.

In many films, the two popes would function more as stand-ins for schools of thought than actual characters. However, The Two Popes prioritises, not only, understanding, its central characters as men, but also imagining how despite their differences, they could develop a friendship and reach a mutual understanding.

The film’s Benedict is initially in a sort of spiritual funk, sensing that he is not meant to be Pope anymore, but fearful about the direction the Church will take if he relinquishes his office. However, encountering Cardinal Bergoglio, and realising he can hear God speaking through someone he considers so heterodox, gives Benedict faith that there is a path forward for the Church without “God’s Rottweiler” at its helm.

At the same time, Benedict is able to challenge the Cardinal’s guilt over his ambiguous role during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. Using his relentlessly scholarly mind to deconstruct the illogicality of the future Pope Francis’ unwillingness to extend to himself the forgiveness, he preaches for others.

This very intense focus on just two characters, only works because both Hopkins and Pryce are superlative. Henceforth, I expect to have the same difficulty mentally disentangling the Pope Francis and Jonathan Pryce, that I do separating Mark Zuckerberg and Jesse Eisenberg.

While scriptwriter Anthony McCarten is clearly more sympathetic to Francis’ worldview than Benedict’s, the marriage of his writing and Hopkins’ performance creates a portrayal of Benedict which is no less empathetic than that of Francis.

And crucially given the subject matter and central characters, both the writing and acting of the Two Popes, finds a way of depicting personal faith which reflects that as inexpressible as it is, for Benedict and Francis there is no force more powerful.

Two notes

Before finishing this review, duty compels me to note two things. The first is my one substantive criticism of the film. I do wish relatively more had been made of Benedict’s pre-clerical past. At one point, he says to Cardinal Bergoglio: “we both know that part of what dictatorships do is take away this choice”. Despite this, and the fact that incidental characters twice refer to Benedict as a “Nazi”, his upbringing under the Third Reich, and whatever parallels it might have with Francis’ experiences under Argentina’s Juanta, go mostly unexplored.

Secondly I absolutely, most flag up how legitimately funny the Two Popes is, especially when it depicts the stand-offishly modest Bergoglio confounding the grandiose world of the Vatican. As that world is often personified by Benedict, that means large sections of the film function as an odd-couple comedy.

Understanding

However, this humour is always affectionate, as befits a generous film that promotes understanding rather than conflict. But that is not understanding as some intellectual exercise, rather it is as a lived experience involving other people, who are inevitably replete with nuances and frustrations.

It is also understanding with teeth. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism that: “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Both Benedict and Francis are men of faith who believe in moral truth. That is what gives the fictional conversations across an ideological divide in the Two Popes such weight and urgency: they are between people who think that words can alter beliefs and that the right beliefs can change everything.

However, McCarten’s script avoids positing anything as simple as one man successfully proselytising the other. Rather, like two marbles travelling in opposite directions, which collide; after their encounter both his popes are put on an altered course, neither of which matches the trajectory either was on before.

That kind of change in one’s understanding might seem weaker than brute persuasion. However, as the Two Popes shows, under the right circumstances, it can be powerful enough to vault someone from the throne of St Peter.

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