Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
I saw The Two Popes recently — and I have to admit, I found myself vividly wondering whether or not the folks at Netflix were rich and powerful enough to convince Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to become actors for a two-hour special. Everything from their looks and mannerisms to their dress and whereabouts were convincing. Sometimes the film changes to actual footage of one of the two popes, before and during their papacies. And sometimes, also, the movie shows real recordings of them together either in fraternal embrace or conversing. That was neat.
But that’s probably the dead end of any raves I have for the Netflix film. Nearly every other aspect, in this viewer’s opinion, was intentionally and calculatedly aimed at wrecking the image of Pope Benedict XVI. Plain and simple. From its beginning to the bitter (and boring) end, the movie took sharp shots at the pontiff.
The beginning of The Two Popes depicts the 2005 conclave, and the director spared no effort in making Cardinal Ratzinger appear to be a politicizing know-it-all, visiting tables and adjourning friendly conversations for opportunities to procure additional votes, like a Looney Tunes Yosemite Sam with dollar signs in his eyes. But not dollars — red shoes and a mozzetta. While on the other hand, Cardinal Bergoglio is shown as the deserving prospect because he has no interest in the Throne of St. Peter. The forced narrative is crudely lacking in any scholarship on the perspective of Ratzinger, who over and over has been reported by his peers to be one of several reluctant prospects. Still, the image sticks: Benedict is the power-thirsty ego-pope.
That’s just the beginning of the movie’s decisive effort to over-categorize the papacy of Benedict XVI and to mark him as a total and utter failure. The rest was almost stomach-turning.
Cardinal Bergoglio is ready to retire, and after an unknown period of silence, Pope Benedict invites the Argentinian prelate to discuss the matter at Castel Gandolfo. Here, with flashes of media coverage of leaked documents and a Curia crisis, Benedict XVI appears to be a recluse who’s tired and overwhelmed by the failures of his papacy. Their meeting is, initially, not a friendly one. The writers showed no mercy in making Benedict out to be the failed pope who could not keep up with the modern world, and Bergoglio as the answer to all of the Church’s problems. Not only does the film work to portray two as polar and ideological opposites, but assures the viewer that the priorities of the scholar Ratzinger are limited to his concerns with protecting tradition and doctrine, whereas Bergoglio is the only one who understands evangelical poverty, accountability, love for the poor and transparency. The dialogue is insulting, watching Anthony Hopkins make snide remarks and scoff at nearly every comeback from Bergoglio: “You have an answer to everything, don’t you?”
Meanwhile, the future pope apparently cannot carry on as much as a moment’s thought or conversation without demanding an answer he is entitled to, over and over pulling out the retirement papers for the pope to sign, casting Benedict XVI as the vain, uninterested, and detached pontiff who does things only when and how he wants. The refusal even to discuss the retirement of the cardinal appears as nothing more precise than a punishment. When the fact is, as Register movie critic Deacon Steven Greydanus points out, “Cardinal Bergoglio was 75 in 2011 when he submitted his resignation as required by canon law — and that it is entirely customary for such resignations to stay on the pope’s desk for months or longer before being officially accepted.”
The animosity is not my interpretation. The director confirmed in a statement, “When I first read the script, for me it was very clear: I had the good pope and the bad pope.” And that’s not a problem for Hollywood, a machine able and willing to spin any story into a polarizing tale of Conservatism v. Progressivism.
Framing the two popes as this and that was no surprising. It’s a forced caricature we’ve been hearing for years now. What was an utter shock and disappointment to me, though, came in the penultimate moments of the two popes’ confession to one another. The future Pope Francis made his confession, which pretty much went like this: “I am sorry for being out of touch with the modern world and hiding behind my books as a scholar.” My paraphrase is actually just short of a verbatim quote.
As Pope Francis is elected and is being dressed for his appearance to St. Peter’s Square, he is offered the red shoes and a mozzetta as a chance to preserve tradition. Francis waves his hand and says, “No. The circus is over.” Couldn’t the writers have just had him say something like, “No. I prefer not to,” rather than taking another right hook at Benedict XVI? I guess not.
The movie ends awkwardly, flexing the narrative that the two watched the 2016 World Cup together. Pope Francis is acting like a bit of a soccer lunatic and the Pope Emeritus is acting like he doesn’t even understand the sport. Meanwhile, new flashes of enormous crowds rushing to see Pope Francis and clips that show off his enormous popularity throughout the world form a montage that pretty much says what the movie wants to say all along: We finally have the right guy for the job.
I need to be clear. I’m not against portraying Pope Francis in a positive light, even with bias. But I am against making Pope Francis out to be some papal messiah and antagonist of Benedict XVI. That’s unsupportable. Furthermore, I am firmly against politicizing the papacy. The Bishop of Rome is elected, but he is not a political figure. He is a pastoral figure.
The Netflix film is fictional. Unfortunately, the concept of fiction is lost on many people these days. Once an image is fixed in a person’s mind, a perception is usually fixed too. Add politics and religion to this image, and a worldview is born.
So when a film starts with, “Inspired by true events,” viewers are sure to take what they see as an accurate portrayal of historical events, with minimal creative adaptations. The Two Popes is the consummate opposite of this: minimal portrayal of historical events dominated by stereotypes that distort or exaggerate the true events. Because of this, it saddens me that this movie will end up shaping the attitude of many hearts and minds toward the Catholic Church. I hope I’m wrong.