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Men of the church

Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jonathan Pryce (Netflix)

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Men of the church

The Two Popes portrays a friendly rivalry between Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis

Until Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy in 2013, there had not been more than one living pope in 500 years. Why did Benedict step down? And what of the relationship between Benedict and Jorge Bergoglio, the man who became Pope Francis?

The answers offered to these questions in The Two Popes, a new Netflix drama, prove to be merely speculative. But as a parable about finding common ground amid warring beliefs, the film succeeds.

Jonathan Pryce plays Bergoglio, an Argentine who travels to the Vatican to persuade the German Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) to sign off on his retirement from the cardinalate. In a depiction of the papal conclave, we see Bergoglio being narrowly passed over for Benedict as pope in 2005. The rivalry between the two men is intense: In an early scene, a rapid-fire theological debate shows the differences in the men’s theology.

“Change is compromise,” Benedict says in response to Bergoglio’s pleas to adapt.

“God changes—He moves towards us,” Bergoglio answers.

Director Fernando Meirelles portrays the liberal Bergoglio as the more attractive of the two pontiffs. Bergoglio displays charming humor, enjoys sports and pop culture, and refutes Vatican glamour. Benedict is a dour traditionalist who nevertheless has some reason for his beliefs. 

For a film that consists largely of two men debating, The Two Popes is an intriguing watch, in part because of the lead actors’ impressive performances and in part because of Anthony McCarten’s entertaining, time-hopping script. The men shift from accusing each other to enjoying each other to appreciating (if not always agreeing with) each other’s viewpoints and backgrounds. Brief strong language, wartime violence, and discussion of subjects like the clerical sex abuse scandal earn the film’s PG-13 rating.

The film is frank about both men’s faith, presenting an interesting depiction of vocation: Benedict and Bergoglio bond over their certainty that God called them to the priesthood, either through divinely arranged circumstances or by His direct voice. 

In a sequence in a beautifully re-created Sistine Chapel, the men bond over their recognition that both are sinners. When they look up at the Last Judgment painting, the camera lingers over the nail mark on Christ’s hand—a symbol of His conquest over sin.

Although writer McCarten said the filmmakers did extensive research, including working with a Vatican insider, the truth about the relationship between the real Benedict and Francis is unknown. McCarten ultimately imagines them as buddies, having them watch a soccer match together in a far-fetched credits scene and showing real-life video of the two men giving each other a friendly greeting. 

But reports in Vanity Fair and The New York Times suggest their relationship may not be so easygoing: Acrimonious factions have arranged themselves behind each of the religious figures, with traditionalists supporting Benedict, and liberals backing Francis. Earlier this year Benedict wrote a letter about the clerical sex abuse crisis that in some ways contradicted Francis’ stance.

Regardless, the message of The Two Popes—that we should seek to love and pray for everyone, including those with whom we disagree—seems more necessary than ever at a time when public discourse often turns to finger-pointing and vilification.