The Two Popes: The Path to Reformation

by Scott Beairsto

I. Introduction.

To the ordinary film consumer motivated by entertainment alone, political themes or religious influence may only occur to the viewer when the film overtly presents them as central to the plot. However, as we know through the better half of this course so far, a film’s political intent or influence does not rest on its overt political content. Even when a film, like The Two Popes (Netflix, 2019), directly focuses on the storytelling of events pertaining to historical realities, it is best not to accept the content at face value. Instead, it is vital to unpack what is put before you as the audience member and dissect what the filmmaker is attempting to get you to believe or take from the film. The central research question this essay will seek to address in the analysis of The Two popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles, pertains to whether filmmakers should be socially and politically engaged in their storytelling or express particular themes in their films. In order to better understand the political influence present in the analysis of The Two Popes (2019), this essay will also highlight just how pervasive religion and religious values are in the political realm, with a particular focus on the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on political culture in Europe, keeping with the theme of the film analyzed. 

After thoroughly analyzing the film, this essay will argue that a filmmaker’s social and political influence in their storytelling and presentation of themes is necessary insofar as this socio-political influence on the direction and portrayal of the story is crucial in expressing the desired political intent of the content presented in their film. As evidenced by the film The Two Popes, Director Meirelles’s use of personalization and selective presentation of character traits and political elements such as; the focus on Cardinal Bergoglio’s compassionate heart, humility, and out-spoken nature about social issues such as poverty, financial responsibility, and justice, highlights the intended message of the reformatory trajectory of the Catholic Church. What is not depicted on screen can be just as important as what is, and through the subsequent minimization of a detailed commentary on the scandal that influenced Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, it is clear that the filmmaker chose to center the focus of the storyline on the relationship and ensuing theological-political debate between the two Popes. In doing so, the filmmaker shifts and molds the narrative of the real-life events into a personalized storyline that promotes a loveable Pope Francis as a saviour of the faith, propagating the Catholic Church’s aim to reshape the public opinion of the once overly conservative faith.

Before delving into the analysis of the film, however, this essay will first provide a brief overview of the link between religion and the political realm. Specifically, the Roman Catholic Church in relation to their influence on political culture regarding the prominent politically charged theme of policing morality which arose consistently in the debates between the two Popes. 

II. Assessing the Link between Religious Influences on Politics. 

Within the scope of a conservative religious value system, particular behaviours are deemed sinful and thus not to be promoted. Although, in modern society, many previously sinful behaviours or actions are now considered commonplace and widely accepted outside religious contexts. As demonstrated in Dhaenes’ (2018, pg. 2) article, in the European context many European countries with strong existing ties to the Roman Catholic Church still remain strict in their stance against particular social issues such as LGBT rights. This is also true surrounding hot-button topics such as divorce, birth control, and abortion, all of which are deemed to be behaviours or actions that go against the word of the Catholic faith (Moscati, 2010, pg. 58). This is especially true for certain European countries over others, for example, the contrast between the more conservative political culture in Italy versus the more liberal-minded Spanish political culture (Moscati, 2010, pg. 57). 

As outlined in Maria Moscati’s (2010, pg. 57) article on Catholic reform, Moscati refers to the centralized political structure in which the Italian Parliament acts as the highest authority on matters such as the sanctioning of controversial topics such as gay marriage. This Italian political authority however is not one that is free from influence; rather it is greatly impacted by the religious influence of the Vatican and the Catholic Church (Moscati, 2010, pg. 63). Moscati notes that the Italian politicians that have consistently rejected pro-social changes regarding “sinful acts or behaviours” have not been doing so out of their own personal qualms with the actions per se, but out of their need to please the Vatican to whom they need in order “to get elected (Moscati, 2010, pg. 63).” Although both Spain and Italy utilize civil law and both have significant connections with the Roman Catholic Church, unlike Italy, the Spanish government allows for “autonomous regions in order to ensure stability” rather than a more centralized Italian Parliament (Moscati, 2010, pg. 57). Furthermore, according to Moscati (2010, pg. 64), the Italian Parliament and the Vatican have a history of attempting to benefit each other through the “exchange of favours” such as taking on “financial projects together”, a theme that became relevant in the film as the scandal surrounding a lack of legal action taken against sexually abusive priests and the questionable allocation of funds in relation to the faith. 

The notion of the Catholic Church being historically resistant to social change as political culture shifts to a more accepting society is reflected in the prominent theme of the faith’s attempt at redemption through the storyline of Jorge Bergoglio’s appointment as the new Pope. 

III. Personalization, Juxtaposition, and Mise-en-Scene. 

The comedic political-drama The Two Popes (2019) centers around two main developments in the Catholic Church’s recent years, the first being the death of Pope John Paul II and the resulting decision to appoint conservative-minded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new Pope. The second development being the shocking resignation of Joseph Ratzinger from his position as Pope Benedict XVI which led to the appointment of the reformation-driven Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope, Pope Francis. Director Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten utilize the movie convention personalization in order to focus the story on Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the protagonist, presenting his character as a loveable figure that stands for what is right for the people, while the film attempts to depict Pope Benedict as a stern man who believes in “one unchanging eternal truth.” In their character analysis, Pope Benedict represented the continuation of the conservative Catholic Church and this was evident in the portrayal of his personality and his physical portrayal on-screen. A stern, serious man, who commands respect, elects not to laugh at jokes, and sees his position on matters as the right way to think –  we also are forced to see Pope Benedict as a frail, old, immobile man, who needs reminding to be active in order to stay alive. Whereas, in one of the most impactful directorial decisions this film employs, we see the juxtaposition of Pope Francis’s personality and physical differences. As for Pope Francis, there is a smile that almost seems pinned to his face, only disappearing when necessary. He is a man who loves soccer and music, walks with a hop in his step, that is for a man of his age, and is presented as an overall full of life type of character intent on making those around him happy. It is clear that the representation of both characters is intentional. The juxtaposition of not only their political opinions through well-edited debates featuring close-up camera angles invoking true emotion from both actors but their physical differences as well enhances the difference in opinion in such opposite men. By personalizing the storyline, centering it on Bergoglio’s life, and portraying him as a laughable, loveable character, we are able to see the filmmaker’s social and political influence on the storytelling and expression of themes as they attempt to better sell the new-look reformation driven Catholic Church with an interesting and likable figure-head.

The film further employs a great deal of intentional bright lighting in the shooting of particular scenes to emphasize the religious significance of the debate at hand, as exemplified in the final debate between the two popes before Pope Benedict informs Cardinal Bergoglio of his resignation. Furthermore, as a larger budget film produced by Netflix, a company known to invest money on a great production, this film spared little in regards to having each scene make you feel as if you were really taking a look behind the walls of the Vatican. With the film’s use of low angle shots when Pope Benedict was being introduced to the city, versus the point of view, or eye-level shot in which we see Pope Francis as he was introduced to the city at the end of the film, we see yet another juxtaposition of their character traits as the camera angles reflect more inferential meaning about the two Pope’s Character traits.

IV. Religious Values Disseminated Through Subtle Political Propaganda.

Although the film is seen as a comedic political-drama, The Two Popes (2019) also serves as soft-core political-religious propaganda. It should be made clear that this is not a negative assessment of the film, as Cull, Culbert, and Welch (2003) describe in their article that “propaganda in and of itself is not necessarily evil” (pg.1). They explain that propaganda can be understood in many ways, but it tends to be associated with the most sinister of persuasive programming. The authors describe propaganda as an “attempt to influence public opinion through the transmission of ideas and values for a specific persuasive purpose” (Cull, Culbert, Welch, 2003, pg. 6). The film does not warrant a full-blown categorization of a propaganda film in which the sole purpose is to persuade and influence the general public’s larger understanding of religion, but the film does carry a subtle undertone of re-branding the modern view of Catholicism while attempting to re-tell the story of the transition of latest Popes. 

The film even makes mention of this sales-oriented aspect of the religion, in the conversation between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio in the garden at the Pope’s summer house. Bergoglio mentions that part of his reasoning for requesting permission to retire stems from a lack of belief in the “product” that the church was selling, which was met defiantly by Pope Benedict. Although, in the end, it was Bergoglio’s unwillingness to accept what needed to be amended or altered in the Church that drove Pope Benedict to recognize that Bergoglio was the necessary replacement that would lead the Church down a new, more welcoming and accepting path.

Director Fernando Meirelles and actor Jonathan Pryce playing Jorge Bergoglio

V. Conclusion

A Filmmaker’s social and political engagement in the storytelling and expression of themes in their films prove to be crucial in the overall success of communicating their intended political messaging. As demonstrated both in the film analysis section, the Catholic Church’s decision to appoint Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Benedict XVI’s replacement marked a significant change in embracing a shift in faith’s stance on social reform. Knowing this, Director Meirelles achieved this positive-change emotional response through a juxtaposition of the two Pope’s character traits and on-screen portrayals. If not for the filmmaker’s political influence in the storytelling and portrayal of the two characters, this film could have been received completely differently. If the writer chose to focus on the negative facts of the scandal and not on the supposed shift in culture through the appointment of Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope Francis, and the director altered the mise-en-scene to fit the script, the film would have taken on a completely different meaning; one that would have strayed away from what the Catholic Church was attempting to promote in the very decision highlighted in the film’s plot. 

Works Cited

Cull, Nicholas J., David H. Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Dhaenens, Frederik. “Pink Programming Across Europe: Exploring Identity Politics at European LGBT Film Festivals.” Studies in European Cinema, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp. 72-84.

Moscati, Maria F. “Trajectory of Reform: Catholicism, the State and the Civil Society in the Developments of LGBT Rights.” Liverpool Law Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 2010, pp. 51-68.

The Two Popes. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, Netflix, 2019.