The Two Popes engages in theological kung-fu

We spoke to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, the biopic specialist behind Bohemian Rhapsody and Fernando Meirelles’s new film.

Anthony McCarten’s career as a screenwriter has a throughline: he’s responsible for the screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody and Darkest Hour — all biographical films with an overt concern for historical accuracy (some more than others!). His latest film, The Two Popes, continues that tradition. It’s a two-hander between sitting Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and papal hopeful Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the man who would become Pope Francis. The two meet in the Vatican as Bergoglio seeks the Pope’s approval to retire from his position in Buenos Aires; meanwhile, Benedict is considering retirement due to health issues and is perhaps slyly interviewing Bergoglio for the position. These conversations never happened — or at least not to anyone’s knowledge. Yet the film imagines a back-and-forth between the heavily conservative sitting Pope and the more liberal, humble Bergoglio, whose approach to religion is less dogmatic.

The events imagined in The Two Popes take place in 2012, a much closer event historically than the majority of the events that McCarten has written about in the past. Most of us remember that period to varying levels of vividness — as it turns out, so does McCarten.

“I had a head start because I was raised a Catholic,” says McCarten. “I don’t practise or go to church anymore, but a lot of the issues that I deal with in this story, I was always aware of. I’d always wanted the church to change, and it didn’t. It was sort of frustrating in that way. You opened windows wanting the winds of change to come in and nothing changes at all, your whole life. With the resignation of Benedict in 2013 and the age of Francis, within the context of the church, the changes have been considerable and very refreshing. Really, the idea came when I was in Rome. A cousin of mine had passed away and my sister sent me a text asking me to light a candle somewhere in a church for her. It wasn’t hard to find a church in Rome, so I went to St. Peter’s Square and there was an opening mass. Francis was on the super-screen and 50,000 people were crowding in there — superstar status!

“I was with my girlfriend — she’s German, and she knew a little bit about the previous Pope,” he continues. “So I said, ‘There’s the current Pope — what happened to the previous Pope?’ and she said that he was in a walled garden somewhere back in the Vatican. I wondered when the last time we’d had two Popes, and I found out it had been 500 years since we’d had two Popes. That was interesting to me, because I knew Benedict was a super-traditionalist. What would make someone so traditionalist do the thing that’s the least traditional? What dramatic potential could exist in a dialogue between these two — one who’s conservative and one who’s progressive. They can speak to the debate in larger society: is it better to stay the same, or to adapt to the times?”

For McCarten, though the debate is anchored in a very specific (and rarefied) environment, the debate at hand is universal.

“If you look into the nature of why people believe in anything, they want the thing that they believe in to stay the same. They don’t want it to be moving all the time. They’re looking for a monolith. In a changing world, surely some things don’t change. We need an axis mundi. That’s Benedict’s big argument: if you don’t have a sort of focus point, a sort of North Star to navigate by, then everything’s as good as everything else and everything’s as evil as everything else. You live in a world of relativism — a little bit of this is okay, a little bit of that is fine — and you’re lost. You have uncertainty. So he said, ‘No, there has to be one common reference point. Let’s call it God. People need it in their souls. People need it to be unchanging.’ And that’s a strong and valid argument. That’s why you have people who say the world was created in seven days, even today. You can say that it doesn’t hold up in science; that’s their cornerstone. There are certainly losses when you say nothing is fixed. In such a changing world, if the institutions don’t change to meet those needs, they become irrelevant. That’s the dilemma of any institution.”

I bring up that, as a long-lapsed Catholic, there are aspects of The Two Popes that sort of went over my head, theological debates in which I found it difficult to take a side one way or another.

“If you see any debate in high school, with the debating team, they have a proposition, right?” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the proposition is, it’s about what people do with the proposition. It’s about how adroit they are and how witty and clever they can be. That’s the swordplay at the centre of this — you don’t have to care about the issues, but it should be dramatically interesting to see if they can find common ground, if one argument is better than the other in this theological kung-fu fight.”

As it turns out, you don’t need the Pope’s approval to make a movie about the Pope — and, in fact, McCarten never consulted with anyone for approval.

“We shot in Rome, but we found locations and built the Sistine Chapel,” says McCarten. “It’s a life-size Sistine Chapel — in fact, it’s five centimetres bigger than the real one. (laughs) The Church never came out and told us not to do this. In fact, Fernando went out and shook the Pope’s hand during one of these public meetings where he walks off the altar and shakes people’s hands. Fernando went up to him and said, ‘Hi, we’re here in Rome doing a movie about you,’ and the Pope couldn’t care less. (laughs) He has bigger fish to fry. (…) I think that if he saw this, he’d like it. If he does see it, out of curiosity, we’ll never hear about it.” ■

The Two Popes opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 6 and on Netflix worldwide on Dec. 20. Watch the trailer here: