Last week we celebrated Pope Francis’ 50 years of service following his ordination. This week we celebrate his 83rd birthday and the Netflix premiere of a movie about him, The Two Popes. I was invited to see the film as a guest of my friends Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, and Sister Nancy Usselman, FSP, who wrote a review of the movie for Catholicmom.com earlier this month.
As a simple lay person who brought along her husband who isn’t Catholic to see a movie about two popes he doesn’t connect with — along with two nuns — this is a story in itself. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Early reviews already indicated that the story was inspired by real events in the lives of the pontiffs, but the scripted words the actor say to each other are fictional. The words in the screenplay written by Anthony McCarten allow Anthony Hopkins (Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI) and Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis) to depict the very human side of these men of the Church.
It seems many members of our Church are divided over who is the best leader and the movie explores their very different mindsets on what path the church should follow to remain relevant in today’s world. The movie begins with the death of Pope John Paul ll and the meeting of the conclave to elect a new pope. Cardinal Bergoglio, walking with another cardinal, comments about how beautifully the Vatican is filled with art, but our churches are empty. It is an early indicator of his mindset that the Church should promote serving the poor and marginalized over promoting its opulence.
The most interesting part of the movie, for me, was the behind-the-scenes depiction of the voting process. Up until now, the only image shared with the world was the symbolic smoke associated with electing a new Holy Father, fumata nera and fumata bianca. Fumata nera, a dark smoke, signals the voting did not result in an election. Conversely, fumata bianca, a white smoke, signals the voting has resulted in the election of a new pope. Director Fernando Meirelles captures the intracacies of the voting in a very visually evocative way, leaving even my non-Catholic husband engaged in watching the tradition of paper, red yarn, wooden balls and the sound of votes being cast.
We see with the first vote that Cardinal Bergoglio almost edged out Cardinal Ratzinger. It also gives us the first glimpse of the future pope’s mindset based on his esteemed knowledge of doctrine over his competitor’s dedication to serving the people. While Cardinal Bergoglio deflects the adulation of coming close to becoming a pontiff, his rival musters votes from like-minded members of the conclave. In the end we know who wins.
What we didn’t know was the personal struggles of worthiness in the role to which they had been elected. While the preponderance of the story focused on Cardinal Bergoglio and his feeling of not being courageous enough to stand up to dictators during what is known as the “Dirty War” in Argentina. In the film, he is depicted as being compliant with, rather than defiant to, the corrupt government that lead to the imprisonment, torture, and disappearance of Catholic priests.
One of the most poignant moments of the film was when both share their feelings of inadequacy as part of hearing each other’s confession. Pope Benedict XVI confesses that he struggles to hear the word of God, he says “listening is hard.” Anthony Hopkins is in his element as he draws the eyes of viewers to a candle and says when he would blow out the candle after prayer the smoke would blow down as a sign of mercy — it did not anymore. This he took as a sign from God to step aside.
When Cardinal Bergoglio is elected as the 266th pope he refuses many of the trappings of the office, unlike his predecessor. He doesn’t want the red shoes or capes that others have chosen — simplicity is the focus of the new pontiff. In one of the last scenes they show the two men doing something very ordinary — watching their home countries’ soccer teams playing in the finals to illustrate how each has affected the other. The camera, after Pope Benedict’s team wins, trails to a hallway where a candle has been extinguished and the smoke blows down.
To me, both of these men of God love our Holy Catholic Church, but see different paths for the future of it. Only history will know what this historic time of “two popes” will mean for maintaining its vitality.
The Two Popes becomes available for streaming via Netflix on December 20. If you have Netflix be sure to watch it; it was definitely thought provoking.
Copyright 2019 Sherry Hayes-Peirce