The Two Popes: What have they said to one another?

Dec 2, 2019 | 7 comments


“You are one of my harshest critics.  The way you live is a criticism.  Your shoes are a criticism!”

Might Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI ever have said this to Pope Francis, who replaced him in 2013? God knows – but the Netflix movie ‘The Two Popes‘ – to be viewable everywhere Dec 20th – faces us with that possibility. Here Des Brady gives us a brief and welcome ‘heads up’.  

Opening for limited viewing in cinemas this weekend is a new film, The Two Popes which will be of much interest to keen observers of Vatican politics as well as to admirers of Pope Francis. The film can be described as semi-fictional, with roughly half of it factual to his life prior to coming to the papacy and the other half an imagined theological debate between the ‘liberal’ Francis and the ‘conservative’ Benedict XVI.

This, of course, might look like a recipe for a boring or tiring 128 minutes but it never becomes that for a number of reasons. In the first place, in the course of the intense debate between the two men, award winning director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) introduces flashbacks into the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a youth, as a priest and as an Archbishop in a throbbing and troubled Buenos Aires. In addition, he introduces many instances of levity, such as when as Pope, Francis himself phones to book an airline ticket with a disbelieving airline clerk who is not going to fall for a prankster claiming to be the Pope ringing from Vatican city – and hangs up on him.

The second reason why this film never falters is the powerful performances of renowned British actors, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Jorge Bergoglio. Hopkins is wonderful as the purportedly humourless, rigid and dogmatic German while Pryce, though not initially convincing in appearance as the Argentinian, very quickly wins us over. Look out for mention of both of them when the Hollywood Oscar nominations are announced in the next few months.

The film opens with the death of John Paul II in 2005, the gathering of cardinals in Rome to elect a successor, and the consistory which elected Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope. One of the big successes of this film is the very skilled way in which the editors have managed to merge seamlessly actual film archive with newly shot scenes in the wonderfully recreated Sistine Chapel in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The film is worth going to for the almost-documentary-like recreation of the election process in which Ratzinger is deemed elected with Bergoglio a far-away second on the ballot papers.

It then moves to 2013, when Cardinal Bergoglio, now Archbishop of Buenos Aires, sends a request to Pope Benedict requesting a meeting at which he wishes to resign his post and return to a role of simple priest tending to the poor. The film fictionalises that the resignation is due to his frustration with the papacy of Benedict and his unhappiness at the irrelevance of much of the Church’s teachings to his poverty-stricken flock. At the same time, Benedict has decided that he wishes to stand down as pope and wants to carry out an intense inquisition of Bergoglio who he suspects will be favourite to succeed him. The rest of the film, with occasional flashbacks and often funny incidents, is concerned with the theological debate between the two men on both the teachings of the Church and its future.

Cardinals attending a consistory – a formal meeting of the church’s top officials – at the Vatican in Rome

This debate is, of course, entirely fictionalised but in writing the dialogue for the screenplay, Anthony McCarten falls back on much of the sermons and speeches later given by Francis during his papacy.

Overall, this is a very interesting and entertaining film. In addition to the wonderful acting performances, both the camera work and the musical soundtrack are faultless. That said, many will find something in it that they consider inaccurate or unfair. For example, Bergoglio wrote his 2013 resignation letter because he had reached the retirement age of 75. In the film, he says that among other teachings which need consideration is abortion. This is not on the real Francis’s agenda.

In writing the script McCarten’s sympathies very clearly lie with Francis, although he does not shirk from including references to his failure as Archbishop to protect his priests and to speak out against the tyranny of the repressive Argentinian military junta. Additionally, he is probably somewhat unfair to Benedict, picturing him as totally lacking in humour, humanity and at times humility. In reality, many of those who knew him well, as well as students who were close to him prior to his papacy, bear witness to his kindness and friendliness. However, these are small points. Go for the wonderful acting, the reminder of the poverty and repression in Argentina, the splendour of the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo, and the reenactment of the papal consistories.

As mentioned, the film opened for limited showings in a number of cinemas throughout the USA, UK and Ireland on November 29th, prior to digital streaming on December 20, 2019 on Netflix. Dublin cinema goers have the opportunity to see it in the IFI cinema, where there is the added attraction of total surround sound. Elsewhere in Ireland, distribution appears to be confined to art cinemas such as the Palas in Galway.

For trailers to The Two Popes, go here.

ACI Submission to Conference of Irish Bishops – 01/10/2019


The Two Popes
Fernando Meirelles
Anthony Hopkins
Jonathan Pryce
Anthony McCarten


  1. Mary Vallely

    I cannot wait to see this film as I have long been an admirer of both Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. Both actors improve with age too and as people, are thoughtful, reflective and open to learning and self awareness. You can sense that in interviews. I expect any actor who has to inhabit the role of another has to learn something which he can apply to his own life. Acting is, after all, “enforced compassion” to quote Susan Sarandon. Another wonderful actor who could play a pope if we could get over the gender bias!

    There is no doubting the fascination of two very opposite personalities, Ratzinger and Bergoglio, thrown into this den of much corruption and nastiness and into an extremely lonely and unenviable position. Who would wish to be a Pope, after all? Will the film raise questions about the need for this particular patriarchal, hierarchical structure and how difficult it is for any one man to retain his sanity trying to negotiate his way through the tangled webs of careerism, lust for power and the tensions that are generated between good and ‘selfishness’? I hesitate to say ‘evil’. I wonder…

    It is a fascinating debate and we want both men, both fallible, with their faults and virtues and their own particular baggage, to bare their souls for us. It is easier to warm to the present Pope but the Emeritus has his virtues too. There are probably no two better actors who both resemble physically the men they portray but both also have a depth and integrity which make them ideal. Hopkins also plays the piano very well of course. I am sure he will delight us with musical interludes in the film. Something to look forward to before the Nativity itself. The anticipation itself brings a frisson of joy!

  2. Carolyn O'Laoire

    I would agree very much with the review of The Two Popes. The acting is incredible and of course with such magnificent scenery it would be best to try to see it in the cinema. I saw it at the Lighthouse where it is still showing. Although the relationship and dialogue between the two Popes is largely fictitious it is nevertheless believable and we watch the ‘mellowing’ of Benedict which is entirely charming and at times amusing. It was so excellent I hope I can get to see it a second time. Do go before it leaves the big screen!

  3. Anthony Neville

    Because of the two actors and the excellent reviews, I went to see The Two Popes in the cinema, always believing films are meant to be seen on the big screen. Besides the two popes, there were only 6 people in the cinema, which was very surprising.

    This was a pity as the film is excellent. The acting, the story/script, direction, locations/scenery are Oscar material. Of course the conversations between Francis and Benedict are fictional but the humanity portrayed is revealing, theirs and mine.

    I left the cinema entertained, enlightened, amused, informed, surprised but also with renewed hope for the church.

    Do see this film.

  4. soconaill

    Deliberately or otherwise, the movie is ‘plotted’ to disarm those who would tend to suggest that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI may be seriously opposed to the ‘drift’ of this first Franciscan papacy. Suspecting that this is likely to annoy that constituency I googled accordingly, adding ‘misleading’ to the movie’s title.

    Straight away I hit upon this review:

    By John Waters in First Things, the review’s pervading tone is one of indignation at what Waters sees as the ‘dangerous and misguided’ portrait of Benedict XVI and its too indulgent treatment of Bergoglio. Lamenting the movie’s lack of historical accuracy it concludes with what must be a travesty of Benedict’s understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the election of popes. Far from ever attributing electoral responsibility to the said Holy Spirit Cardinal Ratzinger once told a Bavarian radio interviewer that it is a mistake to believe this ‘because too many bad popes have been elected’.

    Waters’s indignation is foolish also. Moviegoers who sit through this one may be entertained by it, but will also be well aware that they are watching the unfolding of an entertaining hypothesis, not of a meticulous documentation of the facts. We simply do not know exactly how these men would converse on the issues raised, and probably never will.

  5. Aidan Hart

    What isn’t mentioned in the movie is the confusion caused by Benedict walking around in Pope’s clothing and living close to the Vatican where he seems to be regularly visited by those far right clerics of all ranks who strongly oppose Pope Francis and what he is trying to achieve in updating the Church and reforming the Curia and Vatican bank.

    Benedict should have gone to live in a far away monastery and dressed in simple black clerical clothes.

    The film did great justice to the pain Francis most likely and rightly feels about how badly he had treated the young Jesuits working under him and who were arrested and tortured.

    The same can be said for the portrayal of Benedict’s seemingly deep and sincere regret, although somewhat muffled, at ignoring the early warnings about the abuse of young children and seminarians by the founder of the Legionaries of Christ order of priests.

  6. Mary Vallely

    I agree with you, Aidan. It is deeply unfair of Benedict to remain in such close proximity and there is little humility in his continual wearing of papal white, expensive vestments or in the fact that he continues to live in such salubrious surroundings. ( I doubt however if the real Benedict would have attacked that pizza the way Anthony Hopkins did in the film. That was more reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter! It was a funny scene but totally wrong for the very fastidious Pope Emeritus.) It is also remarkable how accepting and charitable Francis has been in putting up with having Benedict’s eyes and ears hovering over him in the shape of ‘gorgeous’ Georg Ganzwein. Not something most people would find at all comfortable and again shows that desire to cling to power in the Pope Emeritus.

    “ I want to see His ( God’s) correction ”, says Benedict which I thought was indicative of his pride although generally the film gave us a sympathetic portrait- a fictitious account of course- of someone who made THE most radical gesture in the papacy in recent times by resigning. However, he should have moved away and allowed himself to let go of any power or influence and to have spent his days in praying for his “correction.”

    I often wonder how Francis puts up with what must be a deep sense of loneliness and isolation being so far from home. Maybe he thinks of it as a penance for sins of omission from his days as Head Jesuit in Argentina and in that way it helps him to accept the sacrifice? Benedict isn’t so far geographically from his own roots and he has Georg to converse with in his native tongue.

    I thought our PP, Archbishop Eamon Martin, must have taken a leaf out of Francis’s book in his midnight mass homily here in Armagh this year. It had the warm tone of Francis, and was simple in style:-
    “The light of Christ shines in you every time you visit someone who is sick, or recently bereaved, or when you call on an elderly or lonely neighbour; it radiates when you exchange a hug of friendship, or simply text or phone someone to say: ‘I miss you’, ‘I love you’, ‘Thank you’, ‘I am sorry’, ‘Let’s start over’. The light of Christ draws you away from the madness of the Christmas rush, to a quiet place to pray – perhaps in front of the Christmas crib – and there it moves you in gratitude to God for the gift of life, and love and friendship and food and warmth and health and all the other good things which we so easily take for granted.”
    That is the influence of our present Pope. Ad multos annos, Papa Bergoglio. ?

    Wishing everyone here the peace, joy, compassion and courage of Christ as we move forward into a New Year.

  7. Aidan Hart

    The same to you Mary.


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