Recently I watched the ‘The Two Popes’, a film about the aging Pope Benedict and the not so young Pope Francis. Having never written about a film before there may be some spoilers. However don’t read if this is an issue.
It is a fascinating study of two men brilliantly acted by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. I presume there is some truth in their stories but suspect there is some imagination on the part of the director. My comments are therefore not based on factual knowledge of the men themselves, simply what is thrown up by how they are portrayed in the film. However the issues presented are real and valid and have something to say. A bit like a modern day parable.
The film presents Benedict and Francis respectively as figureheads of tradition and reform. Each man seems to embody and represent these apparent polar opposites. Coming from a Protestant tradition I see similar tensions in the wider church and is not the preserve of Catholics only! Actually I think the conflict is even broader and afflicts all kinds of organisations, both religious or secular.
The film focuses on their unlikely yet slowly blossoming friendship. Both men have a mutual background of having lived with oppression and compromise in their early lives. Benedict with his German wartime past and Francis haunted by memories of compromise during the brutal military dictatorship in Argentina in the late 70s / early 80s.
Much of the film is simply conversation between the two. Benedict as the incumbent Pope and Francis as a cardinal. Initially there is antipathy by Benedict to all that Francis represents in his call for change. This ill feeling is transformed to Benedict seeing Francis as the way forward for the church. The genius of the story is that neither man is portrayed as wholly right or wholly wrong. Like the rest of us.
The two men’s differing convictions reflect the tension between conservative and liberal arms of the church. Francis with his Latin temperament, relaxed way with people, love of football and dancing, desire for reform, simplicity and openness. Benedict the theologian upholding tradition, dogma, the reputation of the church and opposition to change. Both men shaped by their culture more than they would like to admit perhaps.
Francis teases out aspects of Benedict’s humanity such as encouraging him to play music, ordering a takeaway pizza into the Vatican and mixing with tourists. The struggles on Francis’ part was he had given up on the church ever being able to change and was determined to resign. Benedict as Pope refuses to accept Cardinal Francis’ resignation. As mentioned Benedict saw the future leadership of the church lay with Francis and not with himself staying in post.
Underlining that we are all a mixture of the good and the bad each man at different times takes confession from each other. Both lifting a heavy burden from one another. For Francis it is the anguish of his sense of betrayal of his countrymen. For Benedict, though not explicitly expressed, the sense of failure to address the historic sins of the church. My takeaway is that for the Christian, whatever our tradition, we are to carry each other’s burdens.**
Throughout there is a light touch of humour. To get over differences we should not take ourselves too seriously even if the issues themselves are very serious. The film concludes with the ironic twist of the two of them watching the 2014 Argentina – Germany World Cup final on TV. Couldn’t help surmising that Germany’s win in extra time was meant to indicate a win for Benedict!
The mellowing of the elder Benedict as he ‘retires’ and lets Francis take over is a story of grace and change. A celebration of what it means to be human in a broken world whilst aspiring to love and serve God and others.
* If interested to view more of Elisabeth’s art on Instagram go to elisabethgrant.art
**“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6 vs 2 (NIV Bible)