Since his election to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has enjoyed a reputation as a liberal hero who values compassion over tradition. Without doubting his convictions, it’s worth noting that Francis has actively cultivated that image—first through his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who embraced the poor, then through his (relatively) humble lifestyle and progressive statements on capitalism, climate change, the refugee crisis, and other social issues. Some critics on the left have been quick to point out that the Roman Catholic Church has yet to ratify marriage for priests (let alone female clerics) and that the Vatican still disapproves of gay marriage and even contraception. But if Francis has been largely unable to change the popular perception of the church he leads, he has certainly succeeded in burnishing his own standing as a moral authority, as evidenced most recently by the new film The Two Popes, which opens in some cities this Wednesday and begins streaming on Netflix in December.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles (best known for co-directing the Brazilian film City of God), The Two Popes is the apotheosis of the “Fantasy Francis” that left-leaning detractors have accused the media of conjuring and progressives of falling for. Starring Jonathan Pryce as Francis and Anthony Hopkins as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the Netflix film dramatizes the transition in Vatican leadership, with the stiff, practically cobwebbed Benedict coaxing the affable, man-of-the-people Francis to take over one of the largest institutions in the world. Leaning lightly but persistently on national stereotypes—contrast the German’s love of classical piano with the Argentine’s obsession with soccer—The Two Popes dangles as its hook an odd couple in the Sistine Chapel (recreated in its entirety in an Italian studio). But the film derives its considerable emotional weight from its liberal delusions that (1) the inevitable political endpoint of religious contemplation is espousing (or enabling) equality, (2) the current Vatican administration is the result of eschewing worldly concerns in favor of spiritual fulfillment, and (3) mutual humanization is more important than ideological confrontation.
The Two Popes is structured around Benedict convincing Francis to accept his soon-to-be-vacated seat, but the film tells two conversion stories within it. The more expansive one chronicles Francis’ years during Argentina’s Dirty War, when, as the movie shows, he mostly stood silent as some of his Jesuit colleagues were captured and tortured. His own populist turn after the war, it’s implied, is penitence for his role in propping up Argentina’s military dictatorships—a journey that recalls the conversion of St. Paul. Benedict opposes the reforms Francis wants to accomplish, such as reduced stigma for divorcées and gay believers, but he won’t entertain any other candidates for his successor—he hears God’s voice when he hears Francis talk, the older man admits. The hardest question that Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have to answer is why Benedict would champion a man he disagrees with on so many issues to shape the future of the institution he’s served all his life. The self-satisfied answer they seem to come up with is that liberalism is next to godliness.
The flashbacks to 1970s Argentina make up The Two Popes’ finest chapter, complicating as they do Francis’ seemingly incorruptible goodness. But even this dark history does little to deepen Francis’ depiction as an anti-politician, a man whose greatest qualification for the papacy is his lack of desire for it. Not only is the fictional Francis shorn of the real-life pope’s obvious political shrewdness, but the film promotes the idea that an unwillingness to assume power is a virtue in and of itself and that the best person for effective management and ambitious reform is the person most allergic to leadership. (The second hardest question that Meirelles and McCarten have to answer—why roughly the same group of men who chose Benedict to lead them in 2005 chose his polar opposite less than a decade later—remains unanswered.)
After a few days of conversation, Francis and Benedict become friends: Francis teaches Benedict about the joys of soccer, Benedict says Francis is being too hard on himself for his sins during the Dirty War, and, most delightfully, they share a pizza. As broad as some of the early scenes are—Benedict swats away multiple flies whose swarming seems to suggest his decrepitude—the film’s third act is full of charm and catharsis. It helps that Pryce and Hopkins are perfectly suited, and matched, for the wry drama, which requires actors who can sell emotional peaks and troughs through little more than one-on-one conversation while dressed in sumptuous but vaguely outlandish papal costumes.
It may only strike a viewer later, after the obligatory photos of the real-life characters, that Benedict never seems to rethink his ideological positions and how they may influence the lives of the 1.3 billion church members around the world. And though he seems to be respectful of Francis’ intellect, there’s no indication that his successor has persuaded him on any front. The Two Popes simply stops bringing up Benedict’s backward views, as if his humanity absolves him of his hostility toward, say, the rights of divorcées to receive sacrament. See The Two Popes for its fine performances, but don’t be tempted by its naïveté.