“He could have called any number of directors because I didn’t know him,” Meirelles says, “but he wanted a Latin American director so the film could have a different point of view than what an American director would do.”
Pope Francis is Argentinian, and in his prior life as Father (and later Cardinal) Jorge Bergoglio, he was a supporter of liberation theology and had a history advocating for the poor, but he was also complicit with the military junta that so brutally repressed them.
I never thought about protecting the Church. It’s about listening to the other side, listening to people you disagree with, tolerance.
Director Fernando Meirelles
Meirelles’ film The Two Popes in no way shirks that contradiction.
Lin is unashamedly religious – “He goes to church, he’s involved in charities, he’s very linked to the Church,” says Meirelles – but the director is firmly in the lapsed camp.
“I’m a Catholic, but not a good Catholic,” he says. “The last time I went to a Mass was 50 years ago.”
Yet for all its unflinching assessment of Bergoglio’s flaws, the film Meirelles has made is a qualified endorsement of the Catholic Church. And given the tarnished reputation of the institution at this point in time, that seems a quite radical position to take.
“It’s a very questionable institution,” Meirelles says. “It’s the biggest company in the world – so many employees, so many followers. It’s very hard to control and to change this huge machine.”
The movie revolves around a series of discussions between the conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the man he sees as both his harshest critic and his perfect successor.
As Bergoglio, Jonathan Pryce plays reluctant anointee to the role; in fact, there was scant precedent for a Pope to be appointed (by a vote of cardinals) while the sitting pontiff was still alive, so his resistance can be understood as equal parts respect for tradition and modesty.
History records, of course, that Benedict did step down in February 2013, after eight years as the supposedly infallible head of the Catholic Church and many more years before that as its second-in-command. Bergoglio succeeded him the following month, after five rounds of voting, taking the name Pope Francis.
Benedict still resides in Vatican City, with the title of Pope Emeritus, and on rare occasions issues his thoughts on matters of doctrine or the dealings of the Church. It is the first time in 600 years that the Church has had two Popes (the last time, they were at war; this time, they simply differ in their views, Benedict being rather more old-school on such matters as homosexuality and birth control than Francis).
Of course, it’s not only Bergoglio whose past has attracted criticism. Benedict, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, was a member of the Hitler Youth and later served in the German military, albeit reportedly without much enthusiasm. But other than a muttered admission of regrets, the film doesn’t really probe Benedict’s past in the same way it does Francis’s.
“It’s because it was really a film on Pope Francis,” says Meirelles. “You know, the name of the film until May was The Pope. It started as a biopic. We had scenes of his childhood and a lot more scenes in Argentina, but little by little we came to this balance, until the moment we decided to call it The Two Popes.”
At any rate, Meirelles believes the dark mutterings about the young Ratzinger are overblown.
“There’s this story of him being a Nazi, but that’s bullshit. He went to the Nazi Army [Hitler Youth] when he was 14, he had to, like all the other kids. And he stayed there for nine months and then he ran away. So he was part of it for eight, nine months – it doesn’t mean he was a Nazi. He did something very risky, running away. He could have been killed.”
Where the film is more at risk of being found guilty of the sin of omission is with respect to the ongoing clerical abuse scandal.
There’s a key scene in which Benedict admits to Bergoglio that he had known about the sexual abuses of children committed by Mexican Cardinal Marcial Maciel for 12 years but did nothing about it. But as it plays out, the audio fades away, leaving whatever passes between the two men in the privacy of the confessional.
It wasn’t coyness, insists Meirelles, but an artistic choice necessary to save the movie from being consumed entirely by this most egregious of clerical failings.
“We had more lines on it but we felt if we went too deep in this matter, the film would be a film about child abuse,” he explains. “Our approach was, ‘Let’s talk about it, but let’s not go deep’. If we touch more than that, the whole film will switch to something else, we’ll lose control of what we want to say. That’s why we use that device of cutting the sound and letting the audience imagine. If you talk 30 seconds about it, the film becomes about it. And it’s not.”
Though that scene was purely speculative, Meirelles says almost everything in the script is drawn from meticulous research.
“All we see in the film is taken from interviews or sermons or writings. What they say is what they really said at some point,” he says. “Even the small details, like the Fanta [which they drink at one of their three meetings] or Komissar Rex [Benedict’s favourite TV show, which they watch together at another], it’s all true.”
What isn’t true is the setting. Though the production team approached the Vatican to let them know about the project and ask permission to film in Vatican City, “they never replied to our emails”.
As a consequence – and with the luxury of a Netflix-backed budget of around $US40 million – “we built our own Sistine Chapel”, he says.
“We couldn’t shoot in St Peter’s Square – all those scenes are CG, shot with green screen. All the palaces and indoors we found different places around Rome that in some way replicate the Vatican environments. It feels like the Vatican, doesn’t it?”
That it does. And, for the most part, it feels like a film the Vatican would mostly approve of. The Catholic Church comes in for some justified criticism, but ultimately its mission – or, at any rate, Pope Francis’s mission – to elevate the poor, both physically and spiritually, is accepted and endorsed.
“I never thought about protecting the Church,” says Meirelles. “It’s about listening to the other side, listening to people you disagree with, tolerance. We need this commodity in the world today. People don’t listen to the other any more.”
The Two Popes is in selected cinemas from December 5 and on Netflix from December 20.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.