Thursday, December 19, 2019

Fernando Meirelles | The Two Popes

slow tango into the catholic church’s history
by Douglas Messerli

Anthony McCarten (screenplay, based on his play The Pope), Fernando Meirelles (director) The Two Popes / 2019

I have to admit that my husband Howard’s insistence that I see Fernado Meirelles' 2019 film, The Two Popes, was first greeted with deaf ears, partly because I knew Netflix would soon be streaming it, and also because I have little interest these days in religion, and even less in Catholicism—even though I have admitted in these pages a couple of times that as a young man, with two uncles who were Protestant ministers, and a father and mother very involved in their Presbyterian church, I once imagined becoming a missionary and later, a student of theology.
      Yet, I realized quickly that my desire to be a missionary had more to do with traveling than with converting people to any religious perspective, and that my interest in theology had less to do with any one religious perspective than it had to do with a strong curiosity of why people believed, an off-shoot of my interest in philosophy. And my own sexuality certainly mightn’t have encouraged me along that route.
      About three decades ago, I abandoned any religious beliefs, convinced, in part by Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe that religion did more harm over the centuries than good. The heaven and hell at the center of so much theological thinking no longer accorded with my own rational thinking. And the good values of believers seemed to be slipping away from those that I tried to maintain.
      Nonetheless, when Howard and my publishing assistant Pablo Capra pulled me away from my home desk to see the film, I found it a far more likeable work than I might have imagined. Both of these Popes are failed human beings, who feel, in different ways, that they cannot go on in their ministries.

      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.  
     His views might be described as those of a conservative hard-liner regarding his view of church doctrines. Great church historian he may have been, but change was something Benedict would not allow.
     What his opposite, the tangoing, soccer-loving Jorge Bergoglio argued should be bridges instead of walls (does this sound familiar?), is met with Benedict’s argument that all change is compromise and that a sound house needs walls.
       Yet, this film also tells us another story, that of a young scientist who later rises to become the head of the Argentinian Jesuit order during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, when hundreds of dissidents were simply “disappeared,” arrested and killed, their bodies often dropped from airplanes into the ocean.
       In order to protect his fellow Jesuits, Bergoglio visited the dictators and attempted to make a kind of terrible peace with them; but it was to no avail, as many of his best followers were arrested, tortured, and killed nonetheless. When the dictatorship is overturned, he is sent away for a kind of isolated redemption, which he gladly accepts, now knowing the errors of his ways. If Benedict has not spoken up against the Nazi regime, neither has Bergoglio openly spoken out against the dictators of Argentina that murdered so very many of that country’s young and best. He is no longer the beloved man of poor in his homeland, although he has certainly attempted to pay his penance.
      Indeed, shortly before his summons the cardinal has brought a ticket to the Vatican, seeking out permission from Benedict to resign his position, feeling that he might offer more to his constituency by simply serving as a local priest, hearing the many confessions he has learned to listen to, and working among the poor.

      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.
     I don’t imagine that all of these events really occurred quite as McCarten presents them, but like Stephen Frears’ and Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, we believe it all “might” have happened given the surrounding circumstances.
      And the final “switch” wherein Bergoglio’s confession is heard by the Pope, who then asks the cardinal to hear his confession is a marvelous transformation of position. Alas, Meirelles doesn’t allow us to hear the Pope’s full confession, despite the openness of Bergoglio’s previous statements, and we only get a few glimmers of what he felt guilty about. But perhaps, once again, that is the difference between the two men: one an intellect in trapped silence, no longer even hearing the voice of his maker, the other openly pouring out his guilty heart into the world.
      With The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, I agree that the numerous flashbacks of Bergoglio’s youthful life (played by Juan Minujín) almost interfere with the heart of this movie, the intense conversations between the once and future Pope. While I appreciated the information about the younger Bergoglio in his homeland, facts I had not previously known, and Minujín credibly enacts a version of the younger Jesuit who believed, wrongly, that he might protect his order by allying himself, temporarily, with the dictatorship, I too felt it detracted from the masterful sparring of the two major actors.
      And while it was equally fascinating to observe the results of these conversations of the Pope and cardinal, we didn’t really need the film to be extended into the more than a two-hour demonstration of what we now all know. But the delight of a new Pope who would not dress up in the papal red shoes, not don the gold cross of God, might have been worth those last minutes. And, although I don’t believe it for a moment, the representation of the conservative Benedict dancing a temporary tango with his replacement, it gave me a kind of slight thrill. Did some member of the young Swiss Guard observe this, or is it simply the logical imagination of the screenwriter?
     I don’t really care. I’d take the tango over a polka or the Schuhplattler knee/slap dance any day—although I doubt the young Ratzinger ever danced even these dances.
      Oh, and yes, I loved the pizza just outside of St. Peters. I’ve eaten from that very small stand.
But I must admit, despite Benedict’s deep delight as he consumes it, it truly is not very good piazza!
       Perhaps this is another kind of German joke, not really needing a punchline.

Los Angeles, December 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).

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