Everyone knows you shouldn’t talk politics and religion, especially at the Thanksgiving table. Differences tend to make things ugly. But differences are sometimes important enough that they must be discussed in hopes of settling an issue. This is certainly true for people of the same faith who have competing views.
Such is the problem presented in Netflix’s “The Two Popes,” directed by Fernando Meirelles. The film attempts to reconcile two sides of the Roman Catholic Church, and it masterfully displays how, when opposing sides collide, both often bring good and bad to the table.
Or, as Pope Benedict XVI reminds Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio: “You think your sins disqualify you, but we are all sinners.”
Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) calls in Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the future Pope Francis, to discuss church matters and Bergoglio’s desire to step down as archbishop. The entire film depicts possible conversations the two might have had in their meetings, as imagined by Meirelles, hence the “inspired by a true story” line at the beginning.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten said in an interview that with so much anger between progressives and conservatives, the middle seems to have collapsed.
“This project was about trying to get these two positions into dialogue with each other,” McCarten said.
The story revolves around the disagreements between the two Catholic officials, disagreements which are tempered with friendliness — for the most part.
Benedict and Bergoglio represent two wings within the Roman Catholic Church: the one supporting unwavering dedication to teachings and practices, the other advocating for a need to adapt the church to the times in favor of reaching those marginalized by society.
This should sound familiar. It’s the same story that plays out in politics, culture, and religion. It’s the age-old feud between conservatives and liberals. The film, however, is careful to show that both men, though they disagree on finer points of doctrine, act out of love and concern for the institution they lead.
After the media firestorm over the Vatican leaks scandal, which uncovered sexual abuse and financial corruption, Bergoglio is summoned to the pope’s summer residence. In the garden there, Benedict needles Bergoglio on comments he made to the media regarding the celibacy of the clergy and homosexuality.
Benedict accuses the cardinal, saying he openly gives sacraments “to those who are out of communion.” Bergoglio responds that he believes giving communion “is not a reward for the virtuous. It is food for the starving.”
“So what matters is what you believe, but not what the church has taught for hundreds of years?” Benedict asks.
Bergoglio then quotes Mark 2:17, saying “‘I came to call sinners,’ as the church has taught for thousands of years.”
Later in the same scene, in an exchange with obvious consideration for current American politics, Bergoglio challenges the pope on the notion of building walls.
“Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls,” Bergoglio says.
And this is the mercy the men learn to show one another, despite their faults. Both confess their doubts about their own spiritual callings. Bergoglio reveals how, as a young priest, his fear of the government led to the deaths of his Jesuit brothers. Benedict, though he is the head of the Catholic Church, asks for Bergoglio to hear his confession regarding his part in the sex scandal, how he relocated a pedophile priest.
“The Two Popes” ultimately praises this mercy. It encourages the viewer to show this radical, explosive mercy to others. Without turning a blind eye to wrongdoing, we need to relearn how to be gracious to individuals who don’t believe everything we do.
While this film’s dialogue, acting, and score are all fantastic, the one place it falters is in a slightly exaggerated depiction of Benedict and his attitude toward the papacy, which may be due to the film’s soft liberal bent. In 2005, he told German pilgrims that he didn’t want to become pope, that he instead wished to spend the end of his life in peace.
“At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ ” he said. “Evidently, this time he didn’t listen to me.”
But during the scene at the papal conclave, the meeting where the cardinals elect the next pope, Meirelles depicts an eager Benedict hoping to nab the papacy, lest a more revolutionary cardinal be granted the title.
Still, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise superb — and necessary — film. I found it applicable to my own experience as a Protestant, particularly in the ways Christians from our own tradition handle their differences. The messages of forgiveness and brotherly love resonated with me as a Christian, though they offer something to even the secular viewer.
What the film does best in its message of bridging divides is to remind us that, with some exceptions, no one side of an issue is entirely in the right or wrong.
Or, as Bergoglio says, “when no one is to blame, everyone is to blame.”