How to tell the story of the modern-day Catholic Church

The Bafta-winning writer behind Netflix's The Two Popes on bringing Francis and Benedicte to the big screen
December 12, 2019

The first glimpse in The Two Popes of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis, is of an older man on the phone, fumbling for details to book a flight. Not long after, we’re swept up in the scarlet-and-gold splendour of a papal conclave. This new film made by Netflix—largely set in 2012, the year before Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation—delights in such oppositions: progressive Francis following conservative Benedict, played respectively by the sinuous Jonathan Pryce and monumental Anthony Hopkins, battered lace-ups versus scarlet slippers. Directed with energy and style by Fernando Meirelles, the film presents a series of imagined conversations between the two men, with debates on the nature of Catholic faith and responsibility spliced with spectacle, news archive and flashback.

The writer who presumed to conjure these conversations is New Zealand-born Anthony McCarten (pictured opposite), three times Oscar nominated and Bafta winner for screenplays about other pre-eminent men in the realms of science, politics and popular culture: Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, Winston Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour and, in 2019, Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. But this was a more personal project for McCarten. He approached the subject of the popes from the perspective of a lapsed (even “collapsed”) -Catholic. “I was raised in an intensely Catholic household, one of seven children,” he tells me on the phone. “Two of my sisters married ex-priests, very happily, so many of the themes are familiar to me. I’ve lived them.”

Watching Francis celebrate a public Mass in Rome, McCarten had realised that somewhere nearby must be the living Pope Emeritus, an extraordinary arrangement, unprecedented for 600 years. “It begged the question: what would the most traditional pope of the modern era be thinking by doing the most untraditional thing imaginable?” McCarten began to see the dramatic potential of a debate between the two pontiffs, first as a play he wrote, which premiered in June 2019 at Royal and Derngate in Northampton. “In the theatre there’s never a sense that you talk down to an audience. An audience, to the contrary, loves a play to be smarter than they are… I conceived this extraordinary situation as a play not knowing or really thinking there might be a mass audience. But I showed the play to my agents in Los Angeles and they said, we think this would be an interesting movie, and within a short space of time I was pitching this story to Netflix and they looked up from their pads after my presentation and said ‘We’ll make it.’”

*** When McCarten had tackled real people before, he’d sought conversations with those close to them; here research was primarily confined to documents. He had papers about the former pope Joseph Ratzinger translated from German, or Spanish for Bergoglio—even Latin. “Many archival documents are still written in Latin, especially the tricky ones, the more sensitive ones, the default of the Vatican is to put them in Latin so I guess a smaller proportion of people can understand them.” In the film Benedict slips into Latin (or silence) when conversation turns awkward.

“As a dramatist, I was interested in dialectic: in an equal and balanced argument where I evaluate both sides of the argument. To do that I am obliged to love my characters equally and equip them with arguments of equal power and if the work is aiming to do anything, it’s to show the importance of listening to opposing views. My feeling about the world today is that there’s a crisis of not-listening, which is driving us deeper into our own convictions, intolerant of others who don’t agree with us. So The Two Popes at its heart dramatises the attempt of two very different men to find common ground.

“My particular sympathies naturally align with those of Francis,” he continues, “but one of the things I learnt in writing this piece was that in having to love Benedict, I had to grow to understand his motivations and I began to see the strength in his position too—the foundational truth that the reason we probably look to religion at all any more, if we do, is for certainty. We don’t look for ever-changing positions, we don’t look for equivocation or vacillation, we want an organised religion to represent one fixed truth. That then provides a navigation point for you to sail away from or back towards—to use a Latin phrase, an axis mundi.”

Pryce and Hopkins deliver nuanced, engaging performances during their extended wrangles, which take place within what passes for the spectacular papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and a life-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel (made possible by the Netflix budget). But does dialectic make good drama?

“It’s the foundation of drama. When it’s done badly, it’s a mismatch; you know what the result’s going to be and you know where your sympathies are being directed. From Plato’s Dialogues onwards, it’s very much about drawing the best out of each other. The point of all this was to reach synthesis, that in the end it wasn’t going to be either side that won categorically, there would have to be some compromise, common ground found.”

But these are real circumstances, not perfect balances—wasn’t that something to consider? “Certainly, but there are hints in the historical record of what has transpired in this passing of the baton from Benedict to Francis, that I must be close to the truth because Benedict had to have some sort of pre-knowledge of what his resignation would allow, the opportunity for reform. That adds an interesting aspect to his decision-making. And secondly, the suggestion that there was some sort of compromise, synthesis, between these two men in real life, not just in my drama, may lie in the fact that in the moment of Benedict’s decision to resign was the beginnings of a sense that there might be a need for a Bergoglio, a change agent, to come into the picture and somehow find a way through this historic crisis that the church found itself in.”

Aren’t the allegations that Benedict was slow to act on the child-abuse scandals referred to somewhat discreetly in the film? “I hope by ‘discreet,’ it doesn’t come across that we’re brushing it under the rug because there are certainly two scenes, probably the most aggressive and high-tension scenes, when the matter comes to the surface and boils over—it’s referred to as a cancer—with Francis taking the responsibility of the Catholic Church for those sins. He says ‘we thought the danger was outside the walls but actually it was within the clergy, preying on children.’ So it does tackle it head-on and there was no way I could tell the story without tackling it head-on, but it’s certainly not a two-hour movie primarily focused on the sex-abuse scandals, not at all. It’s about larger questions: once we accept that abuse has gone on, where do we go from here?”

*** Even before its cinema and global Netflix release, McCarten’s been named Screenwriter of the Year by the Hollywood Film Awards and the film has picked up several audience prizes at festivals. He’s pleasantly surprised that audiences find his “theological/papal smackdown” so relevant. “This film is speaking to the larger conversation in society at the moment between the progressive and conservative camps, which is becoming ever more angry, ever more vitriolic with very little attempt at consensus or compromise or communion and maybe this is giving people heart that yes, it is still possible.” While a fictional film might do that through “metaphor and analogy,” he says, “factual-based things seem more like hard news, requiring immediate action. Maybe there’s a feeling abroad that we haven’t got time for metaphor and analogy.”

McCarten doesn’t believe the current rash of “based on real events” films is anything new: it’s always been easier to get fact-based films approved, he says, especially for famous subjects. Now, though, he believes, there may be a particular need for such narratives: “You have to organise the real world facts in a way that isn’t happening in the news where it’s all a mosaic and can feel very chaotic, whereas a well-made factual movie puts it all into a smooth comprehensible shape where you can get your head around it, and your arms around it and work out what your real opinion is.”

If the Vatican press corps was apparently “relieved” to see the film wasn’t another simplistic takedown of the Catholic Church, McCarten won’t count on two particular viewers. (His film shows Francis glued to the football on television and Benedict addicted to his favourite Austrian show, Inspector Rex, about a dog detective). “My guess is Benedict won’t see it. I don’t think he has an interest in cinema and if Francis sees it, we’ll never hear about it. When we were shooting in Rome, Fernando Meirelles heard Francis was giving an open-air Mass at the end of which he usually goes along the rope cordon and shakes hands. Fernando pushed to the front and told him that we were making a movie about him and that Pryce was playing him and Hopkins was playing Pope Benedict. Francis sort of nodded and showed no interest and moved on.”

“The Two Popes” is out on 20th December on Netflix