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In ‘The Two Popes’ movie, what is truth and what is fiction?

THE TWO POPES
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At the beginning of Fernando Meirelles’ film, viewers are informed that it was based on real events. A look at the facts, however, shows that it should be viewed as a fictional documentary.

The theatrical release of one of the most important films related to Catholic themes in the past few years years has taken place. The work of film director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (writer of Bohemian Rhapsody, Dark Time and The Theory of Everything, among others) looks back on the unexpected end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

The pope’s abdication in February 2013 was an event in the Catholic Church without precedent in recent centuries. Both then and now it causes a series of controversies, questions and conspiracy theories. The desire to address these doubts was probably an important factor in the creation of the film.

Whether the creators came out of this task unscathed remains an open question. However, in trying to answer it, we must take into account what parts of the film’s plot match reality, what is conjecture at best, and what events are complete fiction.

The pope’s funeral and two conclaves

The Two Popes centers on the acting duel between Anthony Hopkins (Benedict XVI) and Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis). The main part of the story takes place in the summer of 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the seventh year of his pontificate. The story also includes flashbacks going back to recent history in April 2005: the funeral of John Paul II and the conclave that began on April 18, 2005.

On the second day of the conclave, Pope Benedict XVI was elected. In the film, we also see the public announcement of Benedict XVI’s abdication during the consistory at the Vatican on February 11, 2013, and another conclave on March 12-13, 2013, which ended with the election of Francis.

All these events, such as the course of the conclave, and even the profiles of the so-called Papabili (possible candidates for the dignity of the Bishop of Rome) in 2005 and 2013 were faithfully represented in the film.

It was as precise as a strict chronicle in terms of small details—for example, the black sweater sleeves that stand out under the papal cassock of Benedict XVI during the first blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on April 19, 2005, or the first blessing of Francis on March 13, 2013, during which he appeared without the red cloak and papal shoes, and with his episcopal cross on his chest. Also faithful is the content of the brief greeting that Francis gave in Italian, beginning with the famous “Good evening!”

The Argentinean plot elements and Fr. Maciel

The film’s more distant flashbacks are memories of the present pope’s youth, dating back to the mid-1950s. At this point, the film’s authors were probably guided by the research of the biography titled Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Piqué (published in English in the USA in 2014).   

She indicates that before joining the Jesuit novitiate, the future pope was dating a girl whom he might even have been hoping to marry. He eventually renounced that idea, following a priestly vocation discovered in a church he found by chance while walking down the street. That vocation was confirmed while visiting that church that day, during confession with a priest on duty in the confessional.

The movie also shows the work of young Jorge Bergoglio (confirmed in biographies) from before he joined the seminary, in a chemical laboratory. His immediate superior was Paraguayan biochemist Esther Ballestrino. She remained a friend of Father Bergoglio for years, and later became a victim of the bloody military dictatorship of General Jorge Videli, who ruled Argentina in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The scene depicted in the film, when the future pope helps her into hiding and carries the leftist literature books to the trunk of his car (ownership of such works was severely punished at that time in Argentina) is also historically correct. So also is the portrayal of the tragic fate of Ballestrino, who was murdered by the regime.

The incidents related to the Argentine “dirty war” (massive repression by the military dictatorship of the opposition and of students) constitute an important part of the retrospective scenes of the plot of The Two Popes.

The film’s creators have shown that these incidents could have been a source of remorse for Cardinal Bergoglio in 2012. In the film, in a conversation with Benedict XVI, Bergoglio admitted that, as provincial of the Argentine Jesuits (he served in this capacity in 1973-79), he might have taken insufficient action to defend several members of his religious congregation who were targeted by a military junta.

This refers to Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, real-life characters who carried out Jesuit missions in favelas near Buenos Aires. They were kidnapped by military death squads and tortured.

The script suggests that Father Bergoglio ordered the closure of the mission and expelled both Jesuits from the congregation. The sequence of events, described in a number of biographical sources, is real; the clergymen were first arrested and then forced to emigrate and expelled from the order. However, these events eventually saved their lives. 

The film honestly shows the efforts Father Bergoglio made to save the clergy and all those persecuted by contacting members of the military junta regarding this matter.

The scene depicted in the film does not contradict the real situation, as Father Jalics after many years celebrated Mass with the future pope, and both gave each other the sign of peace. Another historically correct scene in the film is when Cardinal Bergoglio tells Benedict XVI that the second of the two Jesuits, who finally left the congregation, accused the future pope for the rest of his life of having insufficiently protected him from repression. 

False elements in the film The Two Popes

While the film is accurate in many ways, the director and screenwriter also repeat many false stories that circulated shortly after Francisco’s election. At that time, photos appeared in the media showing a bishop and a priest granting communion to the leader of the Argentine military junta, General Videla, suggesting that the future pope was in the photo.

However, the pictures showed a different Argentine bishop from the 1970s (Father Bergoglio was not a bishop at that time) and a different diocesan priest. In the film, nonetheless, one of the heroes accuses Father Bergoglio of granting communion to the dictator.

Another element of the Argentine part of the story that does not match up with biographical sources is the suggestion that after the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, Father Bergoglio was removed from the office of Jesuit provincial. The film hints that this was a punishment for alleged cooperation with the regime, and that Father Bergoglio went into a kind of “exile” to a distant province. However, the Jesuit ended his term as prescribed by the statutes of his congregation, and then became rector of the Faculty of Theology at the University of San Miguel. In the 1980s, he also stayed briefly in Ireland and West Germany.

Perhaps these plot elements were highlighted in the script to create a kind of balance between the characters who, in the film, listen to each other’s confessions and present themselves as people who make mistakes, have doubts, and sometimes fall.

In this context, during Benedict XVI’s confession in the film to Cardinal Bergoglio, the screenwriters bring up the story of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the congregation of the Legion of Christ, who committed the sins of sexually molesting his protégés and who had hidden relationships with many women. Benedict XVI mentions his case in the film as his own sin of omission.

However, in light of the documents that have been released, the Vatican had known about the accusations against the Mexican cleric for decades. It was Benedict XVI himself, one year after the beginning of his pontificate, who withdrew Maciel from sacramental service and sent him to perpetual penance.

Non-existent meetings, and Vatileaks

The central element of the script of The Two Popes—the meeting of Cardinal Bergoglio and Benedict XVI at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in the summer of 2012—is with great certainty cinematic fiction.

In any case, there are no sources that confirm Cardinal Bergoglio’s trip to Italy to meet the pope and submit a written request for his retirement. Cardinal Bergoglio, or any other hierarch, would not have to perform such a complex process for this purpose.

Indeed, the provisions of the Code of Canon Law indicate the principle of automatic retirement of bishops and cardinals at the age of 75. Rome can invoke this rule in any given case, but if the prelate is in good health, he can continue to serve in the diocese. Cardinal Bergoglio reached retirement age in 2011, so it was not necessary for him to go to the Vatican in 2012 with a request for retirement. Until he was elected pope in 2013, he maintained the post of archbishop of Buenos Aires and, of course, the cardinal’s hat he received in 2001.

Nor is there any reason to claim that Benedict XVI wanted, as the film shows, to hand over the papal office directly to Cardinal Bergoglio. This plot element was based on the widely known fact that the future Pope Francis was already one of the Papabili at the conclave in 2005. Benedict XVI, who eventually resigned and was taken by helicopter from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo on February 28, 2013, did not influence the course of the conclave in March, nor did he even participate in it.

The film The Two Popes correctly depicts the outbreak of the “Vatileaks” scandal in early 2012: the leaking of secret documents from the pope’s immediate surroundings, revealing a series of irregularities in the running of Vatican offices. This was accompanied by the arrest of the papal butler Paolo Gabriele, depicted in the film.

The film clearly indicates that the effects of the scandal may have influenced the pope’s decision to abdicate. However, we are still moving here in the realm of conjecture, because Benedict XVI himself has not publicly confirmed such reasons for his decision of February 2013.

Therefore, the director of the movie created the conversations between Benedict XVI and his successor in the halls and gardens of Castel Gandolfo. However, they were based on several facts: for example, that Benedict XVI plays the piano and Francis is a football and tango fan. The film also rightly recalls that a music album, recorded at Abbey Road studio (where the Beatles recorded, among others), was released with the participation of Pope Benedict.

However, in the album “Music from the Vatican,” released in 2009, no fragment of the pope’s interpretation of music on the piano was included, as we heard in the film, but rather the pope’s recitation of fragments of prayers and litanies in five different languages.

The conversations of Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio in the Sistine Chapel portrayed in the film are fictitious, as are subsequent meetings of the retired pope and Francis on several occasions, in which the two have fun watching a football match of the final between Germany and Argentina in the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 while drinking beer. In the last minutes of the film, there are actual images of one of the meetings of the two popes that have taken place since 2013. 

The element of opposition

Finally, it is worth noting the element of opposition that is built between the characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in the script of The Two Popes and which might create some confusion.

The context of the flashback to the 2005 conclave and the long conversations held in the film by the two popes at Castel Gandolfo suggests that after 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio was the main force behind a kind of “opposition movement” in the Church to the pontificate of Benedict XVI, or even a fervent critic of the pontificate of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

This idea is not based on real facts. The Argentine archbishop and cardinal never criticized Benedict XVI. He never accused him of conservatism or positioned himself as the leader of the reformist or liberal wing of the Church. That’s not to say that there aren’t divergences between the two; we’ve all had the opportunity to discover the differences in mentality, style of communication and pastoral practice of the two popes since 2013. However, the film depicts them as having perspectives that are radical and divergent, far beyond what is justified by their actual positions.

Despite the above comments, the work of Meirelles and McCarten can certainly contribute to renewing the interest of a broad audience in both the character and teaching of Pope Francis and the rich achievements of the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

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