Biweekly Binge: When pontification is fun
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's The Two Popes, streaming on Netflix
Is meaningful conversation, between two people coming from either side of the political divide possible on the internet today? Is it possible in any forum? As societies plunge into extremism in terms of ideologies and policies, the lines are clearer than ever. You are either this or that. You are either for this or against it. The irony, of course, is that nothing is as simple. But we find ourselves often forced to choose a side, for a variety of reasons. In The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCartern imagine a conversation between two such people, similar in many ways but also dissimilar in more.
Based on true events but much of it speculated and written for humour, The Two Popes centres around Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio having a conversation on faith, change, remorse, compromise, and ideology. Bergoglio, of course, goes on to become the current pope, Pope Francis.
The film focuses primarily on a watershed moment in the history of Vatican and the papacy. Pope Benedict was the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in the 15th century. He cited his advanced age and ill-health. But the film also touches upon the increasing number of issues that surrounded the period of a pope who was as conservative as they come. Rising cases of sexual abuse across the Catholic church and other controversies boiled over towards the end of his papacy.
The film, then, becomes a conversation between the incumbent and the successor, a conservative and a cardinal who can be as liberal as faith would allow. But the film decorates all of this with humour and a tinge of irony with respect to their histories. In a throwaway scene, during the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI, the two men meet in the washroom and we see Bergoglio whistling. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict) asks Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) what hymn is he whistling? Bergoglio replies that he is whistling ABBA's Dancing Queen. The chasm between them is cleanly established outright.
The Two Popes traces an interesting trajectory in the life of the two cardinals. There are a lot of news nuggets and documentary-like footage in the film, tracing the history, and in one of them, a passer-by on the street makes it clear that the conclave has chosen a Nazi sympathizer for a pope — German cardinal Ratzinger. It is far from the truth of course, but this is juxtaposed with the more liberal image of Bergoglio. The young Bergoglio had the more alarming history — during the coup in Argentina in the late 70s, he was sympathetic to the fascists. He is even accused of betraying his friends, fellow Jesuit priests who were dissenting against the dictator. The conversation between the two becomes one of self-reflection, and how they both look at their current views and how they have developed over the years.
Meirelles even uses the Italian folk song Bella Ciao to create some of the most amusing moments in the film, a song used as a protest during Italian fascism, as an accompaniment to this conversation between two cardinals with colourful history. Their conversation revolves around change. Bergoglio insists that people can change. Just like he did, like he evolved from the timid man who succumbed under dictatorship to the man he is now, more open to different viewpoints, sexual orientation, and more stringent in dealing with sexual abuse charges against the Catholic church. Pope Benedict insists this is compromise, not change. But Bergoglio is adamant that change is possible, a man can evolve, and it is no compromise to learn and alter one's opinions.
In real life, it is probably untrue that Pope Francis possesses that funny bone and Pope Benedict has that deadpan face, always in store for the reaction to the former's jibes. But that is the reason The Two Popes is so engaging; it is one of those films that is just two people talking in a room. It can be made in a variety of ways with a variety of interesting people. But what if they are pontificating? Listening to someone pontificate has never been this fun.