Maybe a better place to start is the beautiful acting job by the lead actors, Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict/Ratzinger, and Jonathan Pryce, who plays Francis/Bergoglio. It's a bromance. The two men start out on opposite sides of the fence, Ratzinger the arch conservative and Bergoglio the reformer, and do an intellectual fancy dance in the garden at Castel Gandolfo, the reigning pope's summer residence. Bergoglio, still Archbishop Cardinal of Argentina, has flown in to ask the pope to allow him to retire. Ratzinger ends up grooming him to be his successor instead. Far as I know that's pretty much pure fiction. In real life Bergoglio would write a letter and the pope would say yes.
But then we wouldn't get to hear the delightful debate between the two views splitting the church down the middle, the conservative view that what makes the church great is its devotion to unchanging truth, and the progressive view that the church must remain relevant and not fail to distinguish between what is in fact eternal - faith in the divinity of Christ, for example - and what is merely conventional practice at any point in the history of the church, everything from eating fish on Friday (no longer required) to clerical celibacy and the subordination of women to men, which progressives urge it's time to toss aside. Again, if I have my facts right, pretty much fiction. What we have in Ratzinger and Bergoglio is a radical conservative and a moderate conservative (if support of the patriarchy and celibacy doesn't mean calling Bergoglio "moderate" is going too far.) No surprise here, of course. Even a casual moment's reflection should make one realize there's no way they could put a radical reformer in power and change church practices overnight. Bergoglio is more open than Ratzinger, without a doubt, but he's not rocking the boat all that much - and in any case not at all as much as the film suggests.
It's a PR job, in other words. It softens the edges of two powerful men, makes them warm and fuzzy instead of cold and crackly (which is how I see Ratzinger) and kindly, perhaps, but crafty for sure (which is how I see the Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio).
An article appeared in yesterday's National Catholic Reporter which mentions the film in passing. While it may have the right words when it refers to the film as "the charming new Netflix movie," it misses the woods for the trees in my estimation. The film pretends to view the two men in very human terms. They show Bergoglio, in the end, teaching Ratzinger to tango and the two watch the 2014 World Cup between Argentina and Germany with all the passion their countrymen show in rooting for their home teams. Less flashy, more moving, are the scenes where the two of them confess their sins to each other. Unfortunately, here's where I found my mind wandering to a term a professor I once had often had which could reduce us to a puddle of insecurities: she would speak of a "fatal flaw" in our work. With apologies to writer Anthony McCarten and filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, that's where I began to see the film as fluff. Ratzinger barely mentions the name of Marcial Marcel, a Mexican priest whose corruption reached staggering proportions, before the sound fades away. Ratzinger, we know, played a role in covering up the extent of Marcel's corruption.
Bergoglio's dark moment gets much better treatment. He was in a position as head of the Jesuits in Argentina to stand up to the dictatorship under General Videla, who seized power in 1976, famous for throwing protesters out of planes into the sea off the coast of Buenos Aires. Two of Bergoglio's subordinates in the Jesuit Order, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio are taken off by Videla's men and Yorio doesn't survive. Bergoglio's opponents insist he could have used the power of the church to protect these men if he had chosen to. Bergoglio maintains that he didn't see that possibility, and the charge of cowardice has nagged at him ever since.
I've decided that I'm in no position to cast the first (or any other) stone at Bergoglio for this "failing", and that allows me to continue to give the man some space - although I must admit his hard line on LGBT dignity and legal rights as well as his patriarchal views on the status of women still prevent me from becoming a fan. Ratzinger is another kettle of fish. I can't get past his role as head of the erstwhile Inquisition, what is today called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger was prefect (head) of that organization from 1981 to 2005, during which time every reported case of child abuse came across his desk. Where it sat, apparently, and went nowhere.
That's what I'm talking about when I speak of missing pieces in the story of The Two Popes.
The word is Ratzinger resigned over his inability to put the child abuse scandal to rest. I think the failure to address the question directly, and with the same kind of thoroughness given to Bergoglio's history detracts from The Two Popes, as appealing as it may be as a fictionalized tale of a clash between two towering figures of power and intrigue. There is sufficient ambiguity in Bergoglio's story to suggest he might not be a total bad guy, but Ratzinger gets off virtually scot free. And that's what bugs me. It makes the film a whitewash.
Whatever one thinks of the Roman Catholic Church, one cannot in good conscience support a whitewash. It's corrupt to the core. If you don't believe me, I recommend reading Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. Just as the Republican Party of the United States is illustrating the maxim these days that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," money that "makes the world go round" is at the heart of the Vatican's hypocrisies, as well. Sitting on the child abuse scandal, leaving its victims high and dry may be the better way to go if you are a Machiavellian church leader like Ratzinger - God knows what all those legal suits might cost the church!
Maybe it's not just money; maybe it's what they say it is, that they are interested in protecting "the good name" of the church, and simply calling the shots wrong. Maybe they're not sinister, but simply subject to human error and weakness in making policy decisions. To return to the focus at hand, it's not just the pope at the top, obviously. The church is much too big and powerful an organization to be run by a single figure - despite all we hear about the pope being an absolute monarch. Check out that National Catholic Reporter article I mentioned above for the story on Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for example. Or listen to how they got the goods on Australia's Cardinal Pell. And while you're at it, if you've got some time to spare, listen to the Australian judge tell the story of how he reached a verdict in the case - it will take you just over an hour, but it's worth every minute. You get to see what a marvelous legal system Australia is working with. And see what can be accomplished by civil authority when the church fails to police its own.
I know it looks like I've gone off on a number of tangents here, but the point is I don't think one can do a decent job of telling the story of The Two Popes without providing the context in which they live and breathe, the world of power-mongering and hypocrisy and manipulation. The buck stops with them. They don't get to the top without becoming at least part-time enablers of the system.
The question is how much.
That's the story I would have liked to see told in a film carrying the title, The Two Popes.