The Bafta-winning writer behind Netflix's The Two Popes on bringing Francis and Benedicte to the big screenby Francine Stock / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…