A Movie Review of
The Two Popes
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
(Netflix, 2019; Rated PG-13)
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At first glance through even a small film collection, it probably would not take long to locate at least mild antipathy toward Christianity. It may resemble a bonus scene from Independence Day (1996), where a bewildered, lunatic doomsday preacher fails to find El Toro air base in his Bible. Or, a film’s entire fabric may be drenched in anti-religious sentiment. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017–present), and its major theme of patriarchal, religious oppression of women. This is unsurprising, coming from Hollywood. It would take minutes to collect a dozen films that, at best, render faith trivial; at worst, downright false or immoral. However, there are some that defend faith. M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil (2010) is a horror film ending surprisingly in spiritual hope when the protagonist forgives his family’s killer. A Christian can also find something refreshingly positive in Fernando Meirelles’ 2019 film The Two Popes. It endows Christianity (and esoteric Vatican functions, no less) with a humanity and lightheartedness seldom seen in mainstream movies. I examine the artfulness and cinematographic symbolism that makes The Two Popes spiritually uplifting, while providing philosophical tools to assess its core message of postmodern change for the Roman Catholic Church.
At the film’s outset, Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio (Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, respectively) are ideologically polarized — a situation highlighted by the contrasting black and white colors of their cardinal and papal cassocks. The humorous juxtaposition of the two men kicks off with Ratzinger’s confused suspicion at Bergoglio’s whistling of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” as they meet in the Vatican restroom. It is understood that Ratzinger is too solemn to have much to do with pop culture. He coolly inquires, “What hymn is that?” surprising the more upbeat Bergoglio.1
Part of the film’s merit is the expert cinematography, which again and again depicts Bergoglio as the most morally commendable character. After ascending to the papacy, Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) summons Bergoglio to his sumptuous, Italian summer residence. As tension builds between what is portrayed as Bergoglio’s open-mindedness and Benedict’s closed traditionalism, the shot capturing their debate is backdropped with a mountain, sloping Bergoglio’s direction. The slant implies the ascending nature of his view, which he summarizes with, “His [Jesus’] face is a face of mercy. The bigger the sinner, the warmer the welcome. Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls.” In the same beautiful yard — amid some infallibly-carven hedges — Benedict again clashes with Bergoglio’s past liberal changes of mind, labeling as “compromise” what Bergoglio simply calls “change.” The atmosphere of the dialogue is portrayed visually as Ratzinger walks away from Bergoglio and away from the scene’s light source. Apparently, he turns his back on Bergoglio’s sunny worldview and toward his shadowy, rigid one. Benedict also swats away a couple flies as he digests Bergoglio’s liberalism, which is becoming a buzzing in his ears. Further, the conversation strains as it considers the poor handling of the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis. Simultaneously, the camera quivers as if in crisis itself. Here the sunshine falls on Benedict’s face, as if it were exposing the scandal to the light right then.
Later, when the two sit talking in Rome, lost in a “conundrum, a theological conundrum,” the shot is zoomed out, revealing the couple’s smallness compared to the expansive church history painted in the Sistine Chapel. The tide of their dilemma — who is going to resign? — has risen to unexpected proportions, engulfing in its depths their tiny, perplexed personalities. Apart from commentary on ideological content, anyone can appreciate and praise the meaning that Meirelles visually embeds in these well-orchestrated scenes.
It would be difficult to overlook the increasingly evident trend that Bergoglio is the film’s hero who harbors a gentle voice of progressive change for the Catholic Church, sharply contrasting the curt, archconservative Benedict. Given Bergoglio’s opinion that “the Church voted to make overdue reforms remain overdue,” he is then cast as a catalyst for the spiritual evolution advocated for the life of the Church. He emerges as the obvious voice of postmodern normalcy against the Church’s old-fashioned reactionism. The key to the film’s message: whatever Bergoglio praises is what the film promotes. After all, Ratzinger gradually converts, eventually adopting (or at least closely approaching) Bergoglio’s sentiments.
Pertaining to clear commentary on the movie’s message, one can hardly help but notice the enlightened element in Bergoglio clashing with Ratzinger’s orthodox outlook. As one interviewee (slightly eccentrically) puts it, “He’s [Benedict’s] gonna fight relativism….I mean he’s going to stand up for dogma.” The film never delves into the specifics of controversial issues — neither what Bergoglio believes regarding them, nor if Benedict’s convictions waver. But Benedict definitely noticeably relaxes, becoming more open to Francis’ general attitude. The promotion of an overarching attitude of change in the direction of more conscientious respect and mercy is a good distillation of Meirelles’ central message. Although Bergoglio exudes enthusiasm for revision in the Church’s “disciplining anyone who disagrees with our line on divorce, on birth control, on being gay,” he never overtly displays disapproval of these particulars. On “hot button issues,” he urges no specific change in teaching that might set Christians on edge; his main point is to be less condemnatory. Most Christians can be satisfied with his emphasis on increasing mercy and kindness and openness. We will take a brief look at some of these high points before embarking on criticism.
In an early montage, a reporter announces that Pope John Paul II has died. His “papacy…marked a clear end to liberalization and a return to the Church’s harsh condemnation of homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and the ordination of women and married men.” This prepares viewers to be refreshed by the film’s predominant theme of a reform in the Catholic Church’s disposition. Bergoglio does not argue against issues point-by-point (which would take too long and upset more viewers); he merely makes a claim that all Christians can rally behind — that the Church should shift its focus from censuring to saving. Even as a Roman Catholic, I can support Bergoglio’s optimistic mission of mercy. To encourage Christians of all stripes toward a disposition of love over against legalism is wholesome and one of the film’s spiritually laudable comments.
Additionally, Bergoglio gives good guidance when Ratzinger admits weakness and spiritual vulnerability: “It is our weakness that calls forth the grace of God. You show your weakness; He gives us strength” — yet another acceptable, even exemplary moment for any Bible believer. To name a few ways Bergoglio’s life is baptized with humility, he opts for his personal shoes over the fancier papal ones, he pulls his own rollaboard onto planes, he prefers not to be chauffeured in the rear seat, and he would rather order pizza with the Pope than feast like a prince. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with elaborate dress, fine dining, and being served and waited on; but humility nurtures holiness. As Bergoglio puts it, “can anyone ever live simply enough?”
I’d love to let this mostly fun-loving film off the theological hook and bask in the joviality of the “odd couple” that is these two popes. But not so fast. Something meaty for Christian apologist consumption and critique occurs in that pivotal first meeting in the garden. Benedict probes into Bergoglio’s reasons for wanting to self-demote to a parish priest position. As their discussion intensifies into a debate, Benedict asserts the classical Christian tenet that “God does not change,” eliciting Bergoglio’s frank admission that, on the other hand, “Yes, He does.” There follows a point of theological imprecision in Bergoglio’s evidence for God’s mutability: “He moves towards us.”
This statement must be metaphorical: for God is not a physical object, possessing spatial extension and moving measurably toward or away from material beings. Scripture states, “God is Spirit” (John 4:24, NABRE). God figuratively “moving” toward people does not logically imply His mutability. “He moves towards us” can be true in the sense that God does not waver in perpetually responding to shifting human circumstances. This is the more classical understanding of God. The attribute of God’s immutability (that He does not change) is not held by only Catholics, who believe God is “eternal, infinite (immensus) and unchangeable,”2 but by what theologian Thomas Oden calls the “ancient ecumenical consensus of Christian teaching.”3 Oden writes, “The celebration of divine reliability is a religious affirmation that no change can or will take place in the divine nature.”4 It is also called an incommunicable attribute, being true of only God, not of man. The point is that Bergoglio, for all his admirable intentions, errs theologically. Strictly speaking, Ratzinger is right that God always remains the same, and Bergoglio leaves the main road of Christian teaching, straying down a postmodern path. Postmodernism posits that truth is fluid and subjective, and if God (the source of all existence) alters and shifts like a cloud, so can truth. It is not disappointing that the inflexible Ratzinger holds to an unchanging God: there is great hope in God’s immutability — His steadfastness and longsuffering — which is a constant fortress amid fragile humanity’s unpredictable spiritual storms.
Connected with the concept of a mutable God, and to justify further a reconsideration of the Church’s attitude, Bergoglio states that “life, the life He gave us, is all change.” That man changes and inhabits a tumultuously unpredictable world is true. An intriguing medieval belief, brilliantly described in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, is that all beneath the moon’s orbit is fraught with change, and all beyond it is unchanging: “The universe was divided into two regions. The lower region of change and irregularity he [Aristotle] called Nature [physis]. The upper he called Sky [ouranos].”5 To Lewis, the value in this belief, which is not literally true, is its imaginative effect when contemplated. Although man’s world is unstable, he can gaze upwards at the heavens at any time, where the planets and stars enjoy closer proximity to God’s fixed spendor. Crucial to note is that Earth is man’s habitation, not God’s. God does not change; man and his world does.
Bergoglio’s idea that life is “all change” is reminiscent of Hegel’s belief that God is everything (pantheism) and that everything is always changing. Cultural commentator Nancy Pearcey writes, “Hegel taught that no idea is true in an absolute or timeless sense.”6 But not every facet of man’s existence can be in unending flux. Being created in the imago Dei (“image of God”), people can apprehend unchanging ideas and truth. Truth is, after all, part of human life. In a vague, imperfect manner, the mind can grasp eternity — can commune with an eternal God. To say that human life is all change would therefore imply that truth is relative. Whoever is concerned with rationality and common sense should immediately take issue with the contradictory claim that truth is relative. It is an ironically static claim that “nothing is static.” There has to be something about human existence that is fixed. My critique here mirrors G. K. Chesterton’s, when he says H. G. Wells disbelieved in Plato’s “secure and reliable ideas upon which we can rest with a final mental satisfaction.”7 Chesterton writes, “Plato turned his face to truth but his back on Mr. H. G. Wells, when he turned to his museum of specified ideals.”8 It seems that Bergoglio has done the same as Wells.
Postmodernism would agree with Bergoglio’s assessment that life is “all change.” Hegel’s view is “that each culture produces its own ‘truth’ suitable for the current stage of the evolution of consciousness.”9 The problem is that people need metaphysical and epistemological standards to cling to or knowledge is impossible. If God and ideas and nature are all in perpetual flux, I am flummoxed as to how one can state anything with adamantine assurance. The claim, “everything is always changing” (akin to “truth is relative”), rests upon postmodern philosophical foundations, and thus effectively cuts off the branch it sits upon.
Aside from this philosophical blunder and some incorrect facts (such as Bergoglio saying belief in angels did not appear until the fifth century), the film warrants few direct criticisms from the common Christian consensus. Bergoglio says, “sin is a wound, not a stain,” even though sin clearly is a “stain” in the Catholic Catechism10 and a “spot” in Scripture (Job 11:15, KJV). Nonetheless, since Christ is the great Physician, sin can also be a wound warranting healing.
Bergoglio’s reflection, “You know, the world can be chaotic. And there’s beauty in that,” is a sort of postmodern aesthetic, redeemable to a degree by Christians. The universe can produce many attractive or exciting unexpected events for which God can be praised. But an appreciation of a degree of chaos should not degrade into a love of disorder. Appreciating chaos is valuable to the extent that it does not overlook or reject creation’s inherent orderliness. That God deemed creation “good” and wove design and intelligibility into it can be more emphatically welcomed by Christians than any charm attributed to chaos or chance.
Understandably, many Christians, including catechism-conscious Catholics, will disapprove of Bergoglio’s softening to the aforementioned issues (homosexuality, contraception, divorce). But the film portrays him advocating only an easing-up on opponents of the controversial teachings. His suggestion that the Church lags behind the zeitgeist, implying that it should catch up, could also be criticized. The Church is called to be a divine touchstone amid the vicissitudes of secular culture. Still, I won’t shy from praising this cinematic delight. Anyone can enjoy its artistic merit and be encouraged by Bergoglio’s buoyant joy, which overflows and brightens everyone he encounters. He inspires an atmosphere of glad communion. From the unity of the crowd at the beginning, to the blooming friendship at the end, The Two Popes carries enough beneficent emotional force to be worth the watch. —Jason Monroe
Jason Monroe holds an MA in Christian Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. His primary research and writing interests are Inklings Studies, philosophy of science, and classic Christian theology. He also volunteers at his local Roman Catholic parish as a cantor.
- The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles (Netflix, 2019), accessed December 28, 2019, https://www.netflix.com/title/80174451.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 202.
- Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), xiii.
- Oden, Classic Christianity, 68.
- C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 3–4.
- Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 196.
- G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Project Gutenberg, 1996), chap. 5, iBooks.
- Chesterton, Heretics, chap. 5.
- Pearcey, Saving Leonardo, 228.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 411.