“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
So Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:18. And so the Catholic Church has taken as its founding verse. Peter is recognized as the first pope, and he allegedly died on Vatican Hill, where the church named for him now stands. His tomb is located under its floor.
Another 265 popes, it is said, followed in Peter’s footsteps. But while the gates of hell may not have prevailed against the church, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, either. Catholicism has weathered schisms and reformations and scandals galore. Every age challenges the Vatican with a new set of issues—sometimes grave ones within its own walls.
And so it is even in the 21st century. Even—perhaps especially—on Netflix.
It’s 2012. Pope Benedict XVI—a bookish, brilliant German (formerly named Joseph Ratzinger) and staunch protector of Catholic dogma and tradition—is in the seventh year of his papacy. He’s in his 80s now (old, even for a pope), and he’s struggling to deal with the Church’s global sexual scandals and the leaks of Vatican documents to the Italian press.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is in Rome. He’s been summoned there by the pope, and Bergoglio believes it must be for the pontiff to accept his resignation in person.
You see, seven years earlier the reform-minded Bergoglio was a surprise contender for the papacy, a job he didn’t seek and didn’t want. But he also was hoping that a reformer would claim the shepherd’s crook, someone who had a heart for the poor and the environment, someone who believed the Catholic Church was at its strongest looking outward, not inward.
Ratzinger was no reformer. So when Bergoglio’s fellow cardinals elevated Ratzinger to St. Peter’s throne, the Argentinian Jesuit began plotting his own move—away from the upper echelons of Church leadership. He mailed his resignation letter three times to Pope Benedict. Three times it was returned. Now, he carries it in person, hoping to get the pope’s signature and thus distance himself from an institution he can support, but no longer embrace.
But Benedict isn’t ready to sign.
True, he doesn’t like Bergoglio much. The man’s open-handed ministrations feel to Benedict like indifferent theology—and thus, an indifference to the true nature of God. He’s read troubling statements from Bergoglio that, if interpreted a certain way, seem to contradict the Church’s stances on important moral issues. Bergoglio rejects the lavish trappings that come with church leadership, a scruple which feels like a rebuke of the Church itself. He loves soccer far too much. He hums ABBA tunes in the bathroom.
Bergoglio represents change. And for Benedict, change is compromise.
But lately Benedict has been troubled. In an age of growing secularism and cynicism, in a time where his own papacy has been rocked by a faith-eroding scandal, perhaps there is a time for everything. Perhaps there is, as the good book says, a time for everything. Even change.
Director Fernando Meirelles writer Anthony McCarten, definitely have their favorite among these two popes: Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, who is cast as a principled reformer with a heart for the poor.
The Argentinian wasn’t always so well-regarded—and indeed, the future Francis himself admits that he’s still an object of division in his home country. He worked relatively unmolested during the years of the “Dirty War,” when a military dictatorship ruled the country. During that time, Bergoglio made some compromises he regrets even now. In the aftermath (according to the movie), he was stripped of his authority (he had been in charge of the Jesuit order in Argentina and Paraguay), then sent into the mountains as a simple parish priest. There, he spent his days preaching, washing dishes and working closely with the poor, hopeful people in his new parish. His two years there helped transform him (again, according to the movie) into an advocate for those same people, one who believes that Jesus is best seen when working to help real people and heal real wounds.
Francis’ own frugality and way with people is well documented, and the film drives those values home again and again. He carries his own luggage, takes a bus to the Vatican (rather than riding in the waiting car) and chats with a vendor about pizza. While at the pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, he talks about herbs with the gardener there—a man whom, we suspect, is largely unseen by Benedict himself.
But the movie warms to Benedict, too. He may be aloof, but he takes his faith seriously: He wants to do right by God even if that means taking an unexpected step or two along the way.
And each of them ministers to the other. When Bergoglio discusses his own missteps as a young Argentinian priest, Benedict tells him, “You must believe in the mercy you preach.” And Benedict, in turn, asks Bergoglio to hear his confession. While both have made mistakes, these are both men of the cloth who act like it.
Obviously, The Two Popes is inherently, inescapably religious. And while you don’t need to be a Christian to understand or appreciate this story, it certainly helps.
Perhaps the most moving spiritual vignettes are the flashbacks to Bergoglio’s own past. He’d thought about joining the priesthood but fell in love instead. His mother’s fine with it. “This country doesn’t need another priest,” she says. He was on his way to meet that young woman when he passes a church door and hears music inside. He investigates, sees a priest he doesn’t recognize who insists on taking Bergoglio’s confession. During confession, Bergoglio learns the priest is in the neighborhood because he is dying of cancer but seeking ways to participate in the Church anyway. The conversation has a powerful effect on Bergoglio. He later meets with his girlfriend, tells her of his decision and begins the process of entering the priesthood. Another priest, hearing what Bergoglio gave up, tells him that he’ll “have to learn to love her in a different way.”
Bergoglio makes a difficult choice in the Dirty War, one that ultimately exposes other priests (who had been working under him) to being captured and tortured. Benedict argues that Bergoglio’s compromises helped save many people from the military death squads, but the Argentinian still feels tremendous guilt: “Where was Christ in all of this?” he wonders. Bergoglio believes Jesus wouldn’t have made compromises with a corrupt government, but that he would’ve been tortured with the other priests. (He reconciles with one of those priests during mass but admits that another never forgave him.)
Bergoglio’s compromises usher in a period of deep humbling for him, and he sometimes feels lost. He says as much to his congregation. Bergoglio tells them that talking with God is a little like an inconsistent television transmission: Sometimes He comes in loud and clear, sometimes not. Bergoglio says that other priests struggle to hear God at times, too. And that Sunday morning, he has nothing to say. “Today you should feed me,” he says.
Benedict’s own sense of separation from God comes much later. He tells Bergoglio that he’s often been alone, but “never lonely … until now.” When he blows out candles, the smoke curls down instead of up—as if this miniscule offering was rejected. “I pray to God!” he says. “Silence!” But as he talks, he also says that he’s no longer interpreting those silences as a rejection, but rather as a sign that he should step away and make room for someone else. He interprets God’s silence as a message itself, one that says, “Go, my faithful servant.”
We see both men and others pray repeatedly. Bergoglio presides over a respectful-but-casual outdoor communion service. Religious symbols, paintings and buildings are everywhere, and several critical scenes take place in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and in its adjacent Room of Tears. (Whether that’s meant to reference tears of joy or sorrow, Benedict quips, he cannot say.). We witness the pomp and ceremony that goes into selecting a new pontiff; Bergoglio prays for Benedict (even when they’re estranged) and encourages others to do the same (even if they don’t like him very much).
Laymen offer their opinion (via news clips) about the selection of Benedict as pope. Some celebrate the elevation of this champion of church dogma, while others lament his theologically conservative views on abortion, homosexuality and other issues.
We hear references to the Catholic Church’s horrific sex scandal, in which many priests around the world were revealed to have sexually abused children. During his confession to Bergoglio, Benedict seems to talk about one such case of which he was privy to; it’s also implied, perhaps, that Bergoglio didn’t do enough to stop the abuse or to punish the perpetrator. We don’t know for sure, since we don’t hear the actual confession, but Bergoglio is clearly aghast and insists that Benedict should remain pope in part to heal these wounds.
Bergoglio not only had a girlfriend before he became a priest: He was engaged. He gives his betrothed an engagement ring and was on his way to decide all the details when the priesthood almost literally called him. They kiss briefly. We hear references to homosexuality, and Bergoglio listens to people confess various sins—including some that imply sexual immorality.
We see plenty of nude imagery in the classic paintings that festoon the Vatican. Benedict’s a bit worried that Bergoglio likes to tango. Bergoglio says that as an Argentinian, soccer and the tango are in his blood; he admits that when he tangos, he does so with a partner.
As many as 30,000 people disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War. We see how some of them “disappeared”: Victims are injected with something (which renders them unconscious), and they’re pushed out of the back of a plane into the ocean below. Bergoglio says that many of the bodies washed ashore eventually. He describes the torture of some priests he feels he abandoned, telling Benedict that the men’s torturers crushed the priest’s hands. In what appears to be news footage, several people, including priests, are shot and killed with barely a thought. Some characters are grabbed and literally dragged away by soldiers.
You wouldn’t expect a lot of swearing from the titular characters, and you’d be right—though a young, frustrated Bergoglio does utter the word “d–n.” Someone else says “b–ch.”
Benedict and Bergoglio both drink wine with dinner, with Benedict asking Bergoglio whether he approves of the vintage. They later seem to drink beer while watching a soccer match.
Bergoglio tells an interesting joke related to smoking and praying. In Bergoglio’s story, one asks, “Is it all right to smoke while you pray.” Benedict is aghast and says of course it’s not—but the joke’s not finished. The other man asks, “Is it all right to pray while you smoke.” The former seems to sully the act of prayer while smoking, while the other seems to bring God into an otherwise wholly dirty habit.
We do hear about some wrongdoing in the Vatican—acts that resulted in arrests and jail time.
The Two Popes is, on one level, an easy and, honestly, enjoyable movie to review. Sometimes, I can walk out of films with an aching hand because of all the violence and language and just plain ookiness I have to note. And often, the “best” movies I see—the ones that seek to make us think the most or feel the deepest—have a lot of explicit content, too.
Anchored by a pair of awards-worthy performances (Jonathan Pryce as the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI), The Two Popes proves that you don’t need to embrace egregious content to craft a thoughtful and engaging film. It could’ve conceivably snagged a PG rating if it hadn’t been so clearly made for an adult audience.
The Two Popes feels both deep and light, its serious socio-theological discussions buoyed by sweetly dissonant moments between the two men: When they scarf down street pizza in the Sistine Chapel, when Bergoglio tries to explain the appeal of soccer, when the two literally tango for a few steps. And all these scenes of levity are just as important to the film’s meaning as its more serious discussions are: The tango, after all, is a dance predicated on the blend of two people engaged in very different but somehow complimentary movements—a fitting metaphor for the theological dance that (the film suggests) Benedict and Francis were engaged in.
But that theological dance, paired with the broader political and social worlds in which that dance takes place, makes this a more ticklish movie once you start to unpack it.
Religion—almost any religion—is complex, filled with myriad wrinkles and folds that even lifelong believers might not grasp. About 2.2 billion of us around the world call ourselves Christians, but we’re divvied up into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sects and denominations; I’d imagine that even scholars might not know the differences between us all. Even within those various Christian paths, you can see an incredible level of diversity.
The Two Popes takes the faith of Francis and Benedict seriously, hinting at the sublime beauty and wonder behind it (while sidestepping, perhaps, whether that faith is true or not). It tries to work past the obvious differences between them and reach for something deeper.
But you can reach only so far in a two-hour movie, and The Two Popes grasps air as well as substance. As much as the film tries to humanize Benedict, the conservative pope comes across as befuddled and out of touch for much of the film, while the “liberal” future Francis is painted as a brave, timely reformer who is more accepting of homosexuality and divorce and perhaps even abortion. (Look at what the real Francis has actually said about those issues, and you’ll find a more complex, and often very different, Francis.) Thus, the movie sometimes thunders against tradition and conservatism.
Meanwhile, other viewers may identify different concerns. “Progressive Catholics may bristle at the message of uncomplicated hope that ends the film,” Vanity Fair notes. “It embraces Pope Francis as a reformer and, while acknowledging the ongoing abuse scandals, is perhaps too eager to act as if they are a thing of the past.”
The Two Popes is undeniably entertaining. It doesn’t seek to shock anyone with its content. And it can provide fodder for many a conversation over coffee.
But is the movie itself “infallible”? Sorry, it’s not quite that.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.