Monday, December 23, 2019

The Two Popes (the Movie)

For those of us who don't live in elite coastal cities, The Two Popes is now finally available for viewing on Netflix. The two "Popes" in the title are, of course, Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Price, and as a younger man by Juan Minujin). The film depicts a series of imaginary conversations during an imaginary meeting between the two men, punctuated with flashbacks to illuminate further the future pope's personality.

Personality is indeed what this is all about. The fictional conversations, even when ostensibly about theology or politics, are primarily a stage for highlighting the contrasts between the two personalities. All the media's favorite stereotypical cliches about the differences in personalities between Benedict and Francis are on display in this film, which seems to presume the popular perception - not just that being an extrovert is more effective in public relations than being an introvert, but that extroverts are in some sense morally superior and are also more likely to be effective in implementing their goals (in this case the mission of the Church). 

Both major actors are excellent, and the film is, therefore, very pleasing to watch, even if its heavy-handed, nuance-free ideology can get tedious at times.  Indeed, it is the actors' skills that transform the film's stereotyped, ideological stick-figures into real people, relating to and learning from one another (as real people do in real life).  And while the film's ideology is itself rather humorless, the movie itself can be quite funny at times - for example, when the two popes dance the tango. Of course, part of the humor of such a scene stems from the fact that it is so completely counter-factual. Hardly anyone watching it is likely to imagine it ever actually happened!  On the other hand, the scenes of the future pope watching soccer on TV might easily be interpreted as realistic by a viewer who may perhaps not know that Pope Francis doesn't watch TV and hasn't since July 15, 1990, when he says he promised the Virgin Mary that he would no longer do so. But such facts must not get in the way of such a deliberately stereotyped portrayal of the two men!

The ostensible context for the film is Cardinal Bergoglio's attempt to persuade Pope Benedict to permit him to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Meanwhile Benedict is contemplating his own, much more radical retirement and has sent for Bergoglio, in part, apparently, to assess whether he is likely to succeed him and what that would mean. The two are portrayed as representing different poles of the Church's perennial "both/and" - both tradition and change. Negotiating the right relationship between those two is inevitably part of the job description of a Church leader - in any age, but especially in this tumultuous time. As they continue to interact, they get to know each other better, revealing more about one another, and even confessing to each other.

Just as the two main actors are excellent, the Argentine actor who plays the young Bergoglio does a good job of dramatizing the present Pope's past history - and, in particular, the challenges and changes that have marked his personal evolution. Most importantly, Bergoglio is presented as still tormented about the part he played (or didn't play) in Argentina's history during its period of military rule. It becomes Pope Benedict's job to console and reassure him, as it unexpectedly becomes Cardinal Bergoglio's job to speak for tradition and prudence to dissuade Pope Benedict from his planned resignation. Their ability to listen to each other and empathize with each other gives the film its human heart, which more than makes up for its flippant stereotyping and cliche humor.

Of course, it all remains in the realm of fiction. Certainly fiction can illuminate, but fiction can also in certain cases be a dangerous misrepresentation of reality - as seems to happen in Pope Benedict's fictional "confession" to Begoglio. 

(Rita Ferrone offered an excellent criticism of this scene in Commonweal -

That said, there remains much in this film to recommend it - the humanity and humor of the two "popes," two good and dedicated men who love the Church, as they share their struggles and learn from one another, the serious dynamic of tradition and change that at least gets recognized if not really resolved in the movie, and the straightjacketing effect of personality (whether introverted or extroverted) on public figures in our celebrity culture. It should be evident by now that personality cults can be just as pervasive in religious as in secular settings - and just as problematic. After all, history suggests that the personality cult that developed around the previous papal extrovert, Pope Saint John Paul II, did not, in the end, all that successfully advance either his internal Church reform agenda or his external evangelization agenda!

It would be fascinating to know what led Pope Benedict to do what he did in 2013. How much of it was his health? (The film does highlight the infirmities of age.) How much of it was a sense that management of the Church's machinery had gotten out of his control and needed another, stronger hand than his? How mulch, maybe, did he sense that a new direction was called for - a direction he was temperamentally ill-equipped to provide? The film hints at some of these things, but it all remains speculation - as are whatever conversations continue to occur behind the Vatican's walls between the two to this day.

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