Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Two Popes

Was Pope Benedict XVI really a “Nazi”? Did Pope Francis almost marry? We break down Netflix’s new movie.

Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes; Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Peter Mountain/Netflix and Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

In The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten—who wrote the screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody—dramatize the recent history of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite its title, the movie is in many ways a biopic about one pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later known as Pope Francis, though Benedict XVI also appears as an important supporting character.

But how accurate is this depiction of the man who would eventually become the first pope from Latin America? What role did Francis really play during Argentina’s Dirty War? And did he and Benedict really spar about church doctrine over pizza and Fanta? Below, we break down what’s canonical and what’s apocryphal in Netflix’s new movie.

Papal conclave

Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in The Two Popes; Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in an undated photo.
Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in The Two Popes; Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in an undated photo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Peter Mountain/Netflix and AFP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano/Getty Images.

The process of selecting a new pope is kept a secret from the public—at least, it’s supposed to be. After a pope dies or resigns (more on that later), cardinals from around the world gather in Vatican City to vote for the new pope, with a two-thirds majority required for election. As seen in the movie, the results of each round of voting are communicated to the outside world using smoke. White means a decision has been reached; black means the cardinals remain undecided.
Since 1971, cardinals over the age of 80 have been ineligible to vote.

A papal conclave was held in 2005 after Pope John Paul II died, with 115 cardinals participating. Among them were Cardinals Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina and Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger of Germany. The Two Popes goes behind the scenes, depicting the political machinations that took place during four rounds of voting. The ballot results are those leaked by an anonymous cardinal to the press: According to the leak, Ratzinger got 84 votes and Bergoglio got 26 in the final tally.

In the movie, Bergoglio is not interested in becoming pope despite the urging of Italian Cardinal Carlo Martini, who, like Ratzinger and Bergoglio, also got several votes on the first ballot. Like Bergoglio, Martini is a reformist member of the Society of Jesus. But Martini thinks it’d be better if the pope came from outside Europe, so he supports Bergoglio over himself. Bergoglio has since said that he went even further than the mere disinterest in being pope shown in the film, actually urging other cardinals to back the more conservative Ratzinger, who won and took the name Benedict XVI.

Meeting at Gandolfo

Hopkins and Pryce in The Two Popes; Pope Benedict XVI meets Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the Vatican in 2007.
Hopkins and Pryce in The Two Popes; Pope Benedict XVI meets Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the Vatican in 2007.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Peter Mountain/Netflix and Arturo Mari/L’Osservatore Romano/AFP via Getty Images.

The movie’s central conceit involves a secret meeting in 2012 between Ratzinger (then the pope) and Bergoglio (still a cardinal). It begins at the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s Italian vacation home and summer residence. A disillusioned Bergoglio asks Ratzinger to grant him an early retirement, which Ratzinger considers an act of insubordination, and the two debate Catholic dogma. Ratzinger is old-school, standing for doctrine and tradition. The more progressive Bergoglio wants to modernize the church.

This 2012 meeting appears to be completely fictional. The two men did have at least one confirmed meeting at Gandolfo, but it took place in March 2013, after Ratzinger resigned and Bergoglio had already become pope. McCarten told Awards Daily that he saw a picture of Francis and Benedict watching TV together and imagined, given the timing, that the two might be watching the World Cup match between Argentina and Germany. (Pope Francis really does love the Argentine San Lorenzo team as much as the movie suggests.) That’s the scene that plays during The Two Popes’ end credits.

“VatiLeaks” scandal

The popes’ fictional meeting takes place under the shadow of the real 2012 Vatican leaks scandal, in which internal church documents were disseminated to the Italian press. Paolo Gabriele, who had been Pope Benedict’s personal butler since 2007, was identified as the leaker, arrested, and convicted of the theft. In the movie, this is conveyed with a montage of news reports without digging much into the details, though Ratzinger makes a comment that his past assistant would not have allowed Bergoglio to have been kept waiting for him in the garden. “He was perfect,” says Ratzinger. “Now he’s in jail,” replies Bergoglio.

The red shoes

Ratzinger tells Bergoglio during their conversation at Gandolfo, “The way you live is a criticism. Your shoes are a criticism,” to which a surprised Bergoglio asks, “You don’t like my shoes?” We later see Bergoglio, after he’s been elected pope, rejecting a pair of red loafers, preferring to keep the shoes he already has on. It’s a major symbolic difference between the two men, and one that’s true to life: Benedict took plenty of heat for his fashion choices while pope, including his red shoes, which were falsely rumored to be Prada. Esquire named him the Accessorizer of the Year on its 2007 best-dressed list alongside the likes of Scooter Libby, which is not a very dignified place for a pope to be.

Popes wore red until the mid-16th century, when Pope Pius, a Dominican, changed the vestments to white, with the exception of the red cape, hat, and shoes, which have been worn by most popes since then. Francis, meanwhile, was spotted wearing black shoes even in the very first days of his papacy, and the shoes he wore to the conclave where he’d be elected were reportedly so scrappy that his friends bought him new ones. His rejection of the red shoes is not only part of his humble lifestyle: It shows a disregard for church tradition.

Given the level of scrutiny toward his own shoes, it’s no wonder Ratzinger would’ve taken Bergoglio’s footwear choices personally.

Amalia Damonte

In a flashback, we see that as a young man, Bergoglio, on the fence about entering the priesthood and waiting for a sign, becomes engaged to a woman, Amalia. A chance encounter with a priest then makes up his mind, and he apparently breaks the engagement, devastating her. Amalia Damonte is a real person, but she and Bergoglio were actually childhood sweethearts. After his election, she told reporters that he wrote her a love letter when they were 12, writing that if she wouldn’t marry him, he’d become a priest instead. Her disapproving parents were the ones who broke it off.

The Dirty War

Juan Minujín as young Jorge Mario Bergoglio in The Two Popes; undated photo of the real Bergoglio.
Juan Minujín as young Jorge Mario Bergoglio in The Two Popes; undated photo of the real Bergoglio.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Peter Mountain/Netflix and API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Francis was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina when a military junta took power in 1976, and he has been accused of cooperating with or not standing against the regime as it punished political dissenters, including Catholic priests. This is dramatized in The Two Popes by two incidents from the war based on real events: Bergoglio burning left-leaning books and ordering two priests, the Revs. Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio—his former teachers—to stop working in the impoverished community of Rivadavia.

It’s unclear, both in the movie and in real life, whether Jalics and Yorio left the Society of Jesus so they could continue their work in the slums in defiance of Bergoglio’s instructions or because the future pope forced them out for disobedience. But without belonging to a particular religious order, the men were vulnerable. Accounts in Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots also differ about what happened next. Bergoglio apparently gave the men references so they could be brought under the protection of a local bishop, but some, including Yorio, have said the references actually

cast them in a negative light. Jalics and Yorio also lost their licenses to publicly celebrate Mass at this time, which was perceived as enough of a rejection by the church for the military to kidnap them. They were stripped and tortured for five days, then imprisoned for five months before being drugged and dumped in a field.

Though this development complicates the otherwise rosy portrait of Bergoglio in The Two Popes, the movie is largely sympathetic as it shows him later pleading, unsuccessfully, for Jalics and Yorio’s release with a military leader, insisting that the stay on their ability to celebrate Mass was only temporary. Bergoglio tells Ratzinger in the movie that though Yorio never forgave him, Jalics did, and we see the two embrace during a Mass. That tracks with a report from another Jesuit quoted in Vallely’s book, who said the two men “fell into each other’s arms crying” when they met in Germany years later. Jalics issued a statement after Francis was elected pope denying that Bergoglio had reported him and Yorio to the authorities, though it stops short of absolving him of any blame in the situation.

Pope Benedict XVI

For a movie called The Two Popes, it spends a lot more time on Bergoglio’s life and career than it does on Ratzinger’s. His background is conveyed in brief snippets of dialogue, as when critics derisively call him a Nazi. That’s because of his time in the Hitler Youth as a teenager, though defenders have pointed out that enrollment was mandatory and that Ratzinger worked with John Paul II to atone for Catholic involvement in the Holocaust.

Benedict is as musical as he seems in The Two Popes, and the album mentioned in the film, Alma Mater: Music from the Vatican, is real. It has not gotten good reviews. (To be fair, Pope Francis’ own album hasn’t gotten great reviews, either.)

At the end of the movie, we get our most intimate look at Ratzinger as he confesses his sins before Bergoglio, admitting that he hid away in books in his youth and didn’t experience the world fully. Then, things turn serious. Ratzinger begins to talk about allegations made against a priest 12 years earlier. The movie’s audio becomes muffled, so we can’t hear the details, but the name of priest at least is audible: Father Maciel, as in the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, an influential Mexican priest who preyed on young boys over the course of decades.

In the late 1990s, nine men publicly accused Maciel of sexual abuse and filed formal charges with the Vatican. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then under Ratzinger’s leadership, failed to prosecute Maciel. It wasn’t until years later, after Ratzinger was elected pope, that Maciel was forced to step away from public ministry—though the church did not denounce him until 2010, two years after his death. In the movie, Bergoglio is horrified that Ratzinger didn’t act sooner despite knowing about the abuse.

The Room of Tears

One of the movie’s most poignant scenes involves Ratzinger and Bergoglio eating a simple meal of pizza in the Room of Tears, which is located off the Sistine Chapel—in this case, not the real chapel, which does not allow fictional movies to be filmed there, but a painstaking re-creation. The Room of Tears is where a new pope gets dressed for the first time and is so named for the emotions of the men facing the responsibility of spiritually leading 1.3 billion people. While Bergoglio is the one who suggests the two get pizza in the room, it’s Ratzinger who is famously a Fanta fiend.