Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
The Two Popes written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles, based on the play The Pope by Anthony McCarten.
As awards buzz gathers for the film, The Two Popes, I instinctively thought writer Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles adapted the play’s real-life pontiffs with more nuance.
McCarten's original play, The Pope, lazily characterizes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis based on mainstream media dichotomy of the two men. So, enter the caricatures: Ratzinger, conservative and stuffy; Bergoglio, liberal and warm. What results is an artist’s perception of who they wish they were, not a depiction that approximates who they actually are.
The screenplay for The Two Popes (now in limited theatrical release, and arriving on Netflix on Dec. 20) adapts the two real-life characters with little change, and so, the script’s weakness is exposed through the dialogue onscreen. As dialogue reveals character, we’re left with utterances of what the filmmakers wish the popes would say, not what they actually say. I seriously doubt, for instance, Pope Benedict uses Latin in his everyday speech, even if it might be his preferred language of worship.
From a technical standpoint, the film lacks as well. There were a few early scenes whose camerawork draws attention to itself. For no discernible reason, the camera punches in on Pope Benedict. The editing, too, seems unnecessarily stilted. The film professor came out in me, and I felt like asking the director as I would one of my students, “Well, why did you make that shot choice there, or make that cut here?” All good and fine for classroom analysis, but a little annoying while watching the movie.
The casting of Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict, and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio, made for an uncanny resemblance for both. Unfortunately, that’s where the comparisons cease. Both portrayals come off as imitations: their body movements, their accents (which both actors go in and out of) and their manner of speech, the last of which can be attributed to the aforementioned script problems. The actors miss the essence of each man, something more expertly pulled off by Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
The film also made some head-scratching storytelling changes, in both what was deleted and added. Sister Brigitta and Sister Sophia assist Benedict and Bergoglio, respectively, the German nun as the pope’s editor, and the Argentinian nun as the cardinal’s everyday help. The interactions provided the story with character texture and gave the reader a sense the Vatican is not always the patriarchal institution it’s perceived to be. The filmmakers neglect to carry the two female characters into the movie, so it’s a story essentially (God forgive me) of two old guys talking for two hours.
In the story accretion department, Meirelles depicts Bergoglio’s backstory of his time in Argentina. However, the director presumes the viewer knows something of the complexity of the country’s Dirty Wars. For someone who doesn’t, it will leave them lost.
A better source material for the play and book one discovers in the encyclical co-written by Benedict and Francis, Lumen Fidei. The letter bears the essence of both pontiffs better than anything they’ve said off the cuff or what any reporter has said about them.
As I like to remind people, Benedict articulates the faith through the lens of a theologian, so the essence of him tends to be a Gospel of John-like theological treatise. Francis approaches faith as a lifelong pastor. I think of the simple, spiritual nuggets offered by the Book of Sirach when I think of Francis.
Both faith angles shine through in the encyclical, “The Light of Faith”. So, the same advice I offer seminarians pertains to filmmakers. Don’t rely on media perceptions as sources. Rely on the theology the pope actually wrote. It better reveals the essence of the man.
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