The Two Popes: Religion and Politics in a World where Common Ground is Crucial

by Niki Rasekhi-Azmi-Sabet

1. Introduction

            Catholicism is practiced by 1.2 billion individuals of different levels of class, ages, and ethnicities around the world. It is often viewed as the pulling force that unites communities and the pushing force that encourages individuals to not only challenge injustice in society but to create opportunities for reform. In Latin, the word “religio” from religion, means “to tie or bind together”, however, one can argue that it also acts as a divisor in the name of politics. In the moments where political differences divide humans, it is important to remember that the fate of the Catholic Church relies on common ground.

            The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten, is a biographical drama that illustrates imaginary conversations between Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI, who served papacy from 2005 to 2013 after the death of Pope John Paul II. The film begins with the announcement of the Pope’s passing, ultimately marking an end to liberalization, and the gathering of 160 cardinals from around the world for election. Immediately, there is a rivalry depicted between cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina and Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) from Germany as they are both popular and highly praised. Seven years later, when conservative Pope Benedict is head of the Catholic Church, Vatican scandals arise stirring the film’s plot, which then calls the progressive Bergoglio back to Rome. Although Bergoglio had already made the plan to resign as Archbishop, meeting with Pope Benedict allows him to recount his past and learn the church’s necessity for a leader like him. The film beautifully captures the historic moment of the two living popes and a friendship that blossoms, despite their disagreements and different political beliefs.

            This essay will analyze how religion intertwines with Politics in The Two Popes and will argue that the fate of the world or in this case, the Catholic Church,  relies on finding common ground or balance. To further break down the broad topic and truly understand their relations, the essay will first analyze the connections made between religion and politics in regards to war, exclusion, and poverty as shown through storytelling and cinematic techniques in the film. Following the connection between the two, the essay will go into depth about the two political approaches prominent in the film and their impact on the state of the Catholic church. Finally, this essay will consider the filmmaker’s political and social perspective surrounding the idea of finding commonalities within a world of differences.

            Religious beliefs, whether conservative or progressive, influence human behaviour and may support or come in conflict with political issues. Thus, despite the differences in beliefs, commonalities must be found, in order to attempt to solve those political issues.

2. The role of Religion in Politics

            According to Arthur and Barber, religion and politics can intertwine into an interesting relationship, despite the common idea that the state and church need to be separated (820). Religious beliefs can influence the way humans act towards political issues. Meirelles illustrated this relationship between religious beliefs and political issues with the character of Bergoglio. Bergoglio grew up Catholic and interpreted the Bible in such a way that has increased his concern for the poor and an economy of exclusion. In his speech as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he states: “Just as the Commandment Thou shalt not kill sets a clear limit. So to safeguard the value of human life, we also have to say Thou shalt not to an economy of exclusion and inequality which idolizes money. Every community is called to be an instrument for the liberation and promotion of the poor” (The Two Popes 1:29:31).  This powerful statement combines religion and politics in one sentence. Bergoglio quotes one of the ten commandments, also known as biblical principles, and has applied the message to the political issues of poverty and exclusion. His religious beliefs have influenced him to care for the poor as well as those who are not able to participate in the economy to their fullest potential. In other words, one can say that religion becomes the platform of communication in which political solutions can be heard. The camera captures extremely wide shots of the crowd listening to Bergoglio’s statement emphasizing a large number of people that can be influenced by religious beliefs. Therefore, upon hearing Bergoglio’s words, the community can unite and attempt to reform the political state of their country.

            The scene of Bergoglio speaking to a crowd then cuts to a series of establishing shots of different areas of Buenos Aires highlighting the division between the poor and the wealthy. It even shows a clip of a wall that divides them with humanitarian sayings written on it. Meirelles incorporated these shots to add emphasis to Bergoglio’s concern for the suffering of the poor and their exclusion from the economy. As a director, he wanted to bring imagery to the scene, rather than simply filming a priest talk for a long period of time.

            Bergoglio not only studied religious beliefs but continuously acted on them in a political context throughout his younger years. During the Argentina War from 1976 to 1983, he attempted to bring peace by acting on a Bible saying that state to look out for other’s interests, not only your own (Philippines 2:4). Although some priests were directly involved with the repression in Argentina, Bergoglio actually looked out for the people of the villages that were under attack and tried to warn them. In this particular scene, Meirelles uses a monochromatic gray colour scheme and neutral-colored costumes to illustrate the effects of the Argentina “dirty” War. Furthermore, it was Bergoglio’s religion and his interpretation of the Bible sayings that encouraged him to help others in the political context of war. When he was unsuccessful in saving the lives of many Argentinians, Meirelles uses dark lighting, a gray color scheme, and loud chaotic sounds of shouting, crying, and muffling to illustrate the suffering and killings of the innocent victims who opposed the dictatorship.

3. The Progressive vs Conservative Approach

            “Despite the abundant research on liberation theology and religious change in Latin America, there is little agreement regarding how to access the political orientation of national churches” (Mackin 216). A group of individuals may practice the same religion but can interpret some information differently than others, thus creating their own perspectives and ideas. This is what causes disagreements on how national churches should run to this day. Pope Benedict and Bergoglio are both catholic, yet upon reading the same Bible, they have distinctive personas. The Two Popes highlights this idea of differences with two opposite approaches on the orientation of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict is the conservative, traditional leader that believes God is the enteral truth and change does not exist. On the other hand, Bergoglio is progressive and states that nothing is static in nature, not even God.

            The rise of the Vatican scandals made the two approaches distinctively clear. When Pope Benedict confesses to Bergoglio about the scandals, he admits that he did not give sufficient attention to the corrupt priest who molested children village after village. Instead, he hid away from the truth and continued to perform traditional holy duties without considering the lives of those affected. McCarten wrote the dialogue revolving around the Vatican scandals in such a way that portrays how a conservative would handle the situation vs a progressive. Based on the Pope’s confession, it is evident that the conservatives believe that simply confessing and asking for forgiveness from God fixes everything. During this scene, the camera cuts back and forth between the two popes with a medium close up shots for the audience to pay close attention to their facial expressions, especially when speaking on a sensitive topic like the scandals. Meirelles also uses a variety of over the shoulder shots and establishing shots while the two are having a discussion, in order to help the audience establish the positioning and setting. As they continue to converse, Bergoglio refers to the conservative approach and states that the church must not treat sins like a stain, hoping to blot them out. Instead, he introduces a progressive approach that views sins like wounds that must be healed. The reformist perspective believes that the traditional confession and forgiveness of God is not enough. The church must change and add more consideration for the healing, protection, and overall well-being of humans.

            Meirelles also illustrates the two different approaches through Benedict and Bergoglio’s two different lifestyles. For example, Pope Benedict who does not believe in change follows old traditions and dines alone with meals prepared by his staff. In fact, he was mostly indoors and only in contact with his security. On the other side, Bergoglio who encourages change rebels against old church traditions and dines with his secretaries. He even walks freely around Rome, orders his own pizza, and ends the day off at a sports bar where he joins citizens in a football game screening. During the sports bar scene, Meirelles uses warm tones of yellow lighting to create a relaxed and joyous environment, emphasizing the happy, sociable life that Bergoglio lives compared to Benedict. Towards the end of the film when Bergoglio is finally elected as Pope Francis, he refuses to wear the traditional garments and instead, wears his own. This last symbol marks the beginning of a progressive church.  

4. Filmmaker’s social and political perspective

            Filmmakers must be socially and politically engaged regarding their storytelling or theme. In other words, in order for them to successfully execute a certain story or message to the audience, they themselves must be highly informed on their topic. Writer McCarten approaches real-life subjects with authenticity and states in an interview “however you get to authenticity, you have to do justice to the subject.” For The Two Popes to be a realistic style of film, director Meirelles and writer McCarten conducted extensive research about each pope, the Vatican scandals, and the Argentina war. Although the conversation between the popes is an imaginary one, the dialogue is put together by pure facts, research, and information McCarten gathered from his own Catholic background. They were both highly educated and aware of the political and social issues that built the plot and theme of the film.

            McCarten and Meirelles based the film around the theme of finding common ground and balance. Benedict and Bergoglio were deemed to be different by the public, but little did people know that they both grew up in dictatorships and followed similar religious paths. At the beginning of the film, the two popes were depicted as rivals constantly disagreeing with each other, but as time progressed, they slowly built a bond over little things like soccer, pizza, and music. At the end of their time together, they even embraced a long hug. This friendship can be compared to the world, in the sense that if individuals set aside their differences, they too can create a stable and peaceful environment even as political issues arise.

5. Conclusion

            The Two Popes is much more than just a conversation.  It reveals the feelings of anger, loneliness, regret, and happiness that lies behind the Papal Palace walls. Along with emotions, it beautifully illustrates the stories, processes, and perspectives that make the Church what it is today. The film further explores the connection between religion and politics, while educating viewers on the progressive vs conservative perspectives that arise in society. To this day, there will always be an intellectual debate between the two approaches, but one must be reminded of the impact it has on people’s lives. A progressive approach will look into the protection and well-being of the poor, while the conservative approach focuses on preserving its church. Despite differences, commonalities can be found resulting in peace and stability. Through cinematic techniques and storytelling, the film also raises awareness for political issues such as war, poverty, and exclusion. That is when religion comes to help individuals unite together, challenge injustice, and build bridges, not walls.

6. Works Cited

Joyce, Arthur A., and Sarah B. Barber. “Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization: A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca.” Current Anthropology, vol. 56, no. 6, 2015, pp. 819–847. 

Mackin, Robert Sean. “In Word and Deed: Assessing the Strength of Progressive Catholicism in Latin America, 1960–1970s.” Sociology of Religion, vol. 71, no. 2, 2010, pp. 216–242. 

The Two Popes. Dir. Fernandez Meirelles. Netflix, 2019.