Pope Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) is described as a “Nazi” by some followers and given the German church’s unspoken support of Hitler during World War II, might be properly described as one. Certainly, as he later confesses to the Argentinian cardinal whom he has summoned to his summer home, he allowed priests who were known sex-abusers to move from town to town continuing their abuse. Moreover, his top official has just been arrested for financial malfeasance.
If the two in conversation, however, may seem to represent such a serious interchange that no one but an intense believer might be interested, you haven’t seen the movie. Writer Anthony McCarten (based on his play The Pope) and director Meirelles’ production is actually a playing out of these opposites as a challenge between two great actors, Anthony Hopkins (as Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (as Bergoglio) who wryly and humorously fight for their positions, the former favoring the Church’s past, the other the Church’s future. In many senses, Benedict, knowing the weaknesses of his position, and, as he admits, no longer able to hear God’s voice, realizes that he is at a great disadvantage. Without able to say it, he realizes that without rejuvenating the Catholic Church, it will dwindle away to nothing, despite its current millions of members. And there is a sly and often humorous wisdom in his arguments with his far more liberal cardinal.
Benedict is not the major figure here, nor is he the beloved one, but Hopkins knows how maintain his acting superiority simply through the smallest of statements and gestures—a refusal to even eat with his guest, while in a nearby room he eats his Bavarian meatballs while watching his favorite movie, a ridiculous series about a dog-hero; an absolute refusal even to read Bergoglio’s request for release from his duties; an near abandonment of the man he has summoned as he rushes back to the Vatican; and his final admission that he too his seeking a release from his vows, which may compel the reluctant Bergoglio to become Pope, which given what we know of the history is inevitable.