What The Two Popes Gets Wrong

I watched The Two Popes recently. 

To be honest, my guard was up going into it. Many good people whose opinion I trust told me it was unjust, based on lies, and even dangerous. Before watching, I read some articles about it, notably one by Vanity Fair and another by First Things. Both, though written from two very different perspectives, were just as extreme as the things I had heard by word of mouth.

In another way, though, I tried to remain unbiased in my viewing. I know about as much about Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio as your average practicing Catholic—that is to say, not much. I remember watching the news when Pope Francis was elected. I remember all the talk about his attitude towards poverty. I remember the World Cup that everyone hoped the two popes would watch together. But, generally, I know very little outside of the bits and pieces that filter through the news cycle.

So I watched the movie with a computer on my lap, a mind that was at least aspiring to be open, and a plan to write down whatever struck me. One thing did: 

They didn’t give Benedict anything.

From his jarring inability to hear the voice of God, to his scheming to gain the papacy, to his not even knowing the song “Dancing Queen,” Benedict is portrayed as doddering, short-tempered, demanding, and out of touch. At the end of the movie, while confessing his sins to Bergoglio, he confesses that he has sinned by “not having the courage to taste life”—the implication being that he spent all his life holed up in a room reading a book rather than living among the people.

Francis is portrayed differently. He is a man with a complicated past. The movie playfully takes us through a mostly-made-up discernment story and spends a large chunk of time discussing his controversial role in Argentina’s infamous “Dirty War.” He is a man of nuance. He has made mistakes and recognized them. He has tasted life.

Generally, I try to be charitable when evaluating the portrayal of real people in movies. It is difficult to portray someone accurately and without some bias. But this movie troubles me for two reasons.

The first comes immediately after the title flashes across the screen: “Inspired by true events.” “Inspired by true events” makes me think, logically, that the movie is going to be based on fact. Yet this movie is fundamentally based on lies, or at least fiction. Take, for example, the insinuation that Ratzinger had campaigned his way into the papacy. It is well-recorded, to the contrary, that he had on multiple occasions asked Pope Saint John Paul II to allow him to retire to Bavaria, and return to his studies.

Besides the false implication that the movie is based in fact, the false premises of the movie are my second cause for concern. The premises are 1) that Pope Benedict talked to Cardinal Bergoglio before retirement (he didn’t)  and 2) that Benedict was too out of touch and corrupt to continue, so the Catholic Church needed Bergoglio to survive (which we have no evidence to believe).

I am astounded that the movie can claim to be inspired by true events when the premises underlying it are so clearly false. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten said that the movie “is an even-handed, humanistic little piece. It’s meant to be fair. It’s not meant to whitewash anyone, but it is done in a sensitive way.” Yet the movie is unapologetically agendaed. It is meant to steer people away from “conservative” Catholicism and towards progressivism, which isn’t fair to either of the multifaceted and deeply Catholic Benedict or Francis. By pitting the two popes against each other, it posits that the Catholic stance towards homosexuality, celibacy, abortion, divorce, and contraception is outdated, flawed, and the reason people are leaving the Church. 

Movies have an undeniable ability to draw people into a new world. They are perhaps the best medium for that. And The Two Popes does this incredibly well, drawing you in from the very first words that appear on the screen. It sucks you into a world in which the only commonality that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis share is a distaste for coffee in the afternoon. It draws you into a world in which the voice of God is heard by Francis alone, while Benedict languishes in unbelief. It draws you into a fictional world, while promising fact.

But perhaps the most frustrating part of The Two Popes is that it is, evaluations of truth aside, a good movie. Pryce is alarmingly convincing as Francis, and, between him and Hopkins, you can watch some fine acting. The shots of Rome and the Vatican are stunning. It’s a finely made movie. But The Two Popes does not want to just rest as a finely made fictional movie; it claims to expose and explain the inner workings of the Church. As such, it necessitates that we not watch it and leave it there. It requires outside research, a critical mind, a motivation to seek the truth, and an inclination to seek justice. For, after all, if we are to “love others with charity, then first of all we are just toward them” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 6).

John Burke is a Sophomore from St. Louis majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. He is aware that his claim that movies are the most enticing medium may be a hot take for people of his major. Grievances may be filed to jburke23@nd.edu.