The Two Popes


                Sometimes a movie surprises with its depth and and breadth.  And you wouldn’t think that a film primarily consisting of two old guys talking would be so mesmerizing.  But this one is.  And not just because it’s a true story.  But because it touches on truths that affect us all.

                Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is elected by the College of Cardinals in 2005, at the age of 78.  He’s German, and a staunch conservative.  He feels it’s the Church’s place to safeguard its centuries of tradition.  The cardinal who received the 2nd most ballots, Jorge Bergoglio of Venezuela (Jonathan Pryce), was personally relieved to have not been chosen.  He would much rather go home to Buenos Aires, live like a simple parish priest, work with the poor, enjoy the national football (soccer) team, and finish his ministry in comfortable obscurity.  In fact, he had resolved to officially submit his retirement papers, which had to be signed by “Il Papa” himself, so Cardinal Bergoglio journeys to Rome to ask for his release from his duties.

                Pope Benedict greets him with a distinct air of emotional distance, at first.  They disagree on practically every current issue facing the Church.  Benedict even implies that Bergoglio has exceeded the boundaries of Orthodoxy, but that implication practically makes Bergoglio apoplectic.  He pleads his case that he simply believes the Church needs to do more to address the concerns of the world, including poverty.  And to be more willing to serve communion to divorcees, and homosexuals, and others considered “sinners,” because Christ gave the sacrament not as an exclusive meal for the righteous, but as spiritual food for the sinner.  Bergoglio is particularly distressed about the Church’s lack of response to all the accusations of clergy sexual abuse.  After several sharp exchanges, finally Benedict asks that they simply sit together for a while in peace.  It’s obvious he's working toward some rapprochement.  But Bergoglio is flabbergasted when Benedict finally tells him:  he intends to resign.  Yes, to renounce the Papacy.  And he sincerely hopes that Bergoglio will be elected as his successor by the College of Cardinals, because the Church needs leadership in a new direction.

                Now Bergoglio is distressed in a different way.  He tells the Pope about all the ways he messed up in his younger years, as a by-the-rules Jesuit who refused to recognize the validity of the ministry of his colleagues who were actively seeking a political revolution in Argentina.  To this day, he regrets his obduracy, and the way his fellow priests paid dearly for their social activism.  Bergoglio also recalls how close he came to ignoring his calling as a priest, in fact he had actually proposed to a young lady he thought he was in love with.  Benedict responds that he felt he wasn’t worldly enough when he was younger---content to be alone with his books, and now he is truly alone.  Their revelations of humanity are endearing to the viewer, because at least in front of each other, they admit their flawed personhood, which allows both of them to pronounce absolution with a liberating fervor.

                Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are marvelous in their roles.  Director Fernando Meirelles reminds us of the religious trappings by panning to some of the spectacular religious art surrounding the Vatican.  He takes seriously the solemn assemblies of the Church while still revealing the character flaws of its clergy, inviting the viewer to experience that emotional tension along with the clerics themselves.  It’s a masterful invoking of the complexity of personal spiritual journey.  And who isn’t charmed by the bucolic picture of the two Popes enjoying a pizza and an orange drink together?

                This one is worth seeing, no matter where you consider yourself to be on the whole religious/spiritual spectrum.  Its personal relevance is surprisingly impactful.

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association