For a Catholic critic — or at least for this Catholic critic — a movie like The Two Popes presents a number of temptations.
There is the temptation, first of all, to review the movie the way the blog Bad Astronomy used to review movies like Armageddon, cataloging technical or factual inaccuracies both minor and vast.
Among the more glaring howlers, for example, is the considerable conflict during a 2012 meeting between Anthony Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, over whether Cardinal Bergoglio’s motivation in submitting his resignation prematurely, before turning 75, is an act of protest against the conservatism of Benedict’s papacy. Out of concern to avoid the appearance of protest, Benedict refuses to accept the resignation.
Notably, screenwriter Anthony McCarten, adapting his own stage play The Pope, is well aware that this is nonsense. In his nonfiction book The Two Popes: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, McCarten correctly notes that 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.
So there was no possible hint of protest or concern of such; Cardinal Bergoglio’s age in 2012 has been fictionalized for the sake of imaginary conflict. (I have a hunch that when he wrote the stage play McCarten may have been confused by the five-year gap between the age of mandatory episcopal resignation, 75, and the age at which cardinals are no longer eligible to participate in papal conclaves, 80. In the film, though, he clearly knows what he’s doing.)
Another critical temptation is to debunk the film’s schematic interpretation of its present and future popes as embodiments of, respectively, hidebound conservatism and enlightened progressivism, instead emphasizing the commonality and continuity between them.
Such a response could take the form of a familiar genre of Catholic apologetic commentary that consists of cataloging passages in the writings of Benedict that some might find surprisingly progressive, as well as notably traditional themes in the writings of Francis.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.