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When Pope Benedict resigned in 2013, it was the first papal resignation since 1415 -- nearly 600 years. At the time, his successor, Pope Francis, was perceived as essentially Benedict’s opposite. But in a new film, “The Two Popes,” director Fernando Meirelles imagines the relationship between the two men and discovers that the Catholic figures are not “black and white.” Jeffrey Brown reports.
There had not been a papal resignation since 1415, but Pope Benedict did just that in 2013.
At the time, his successor, Pope Francis, could not have been more different.
Now, a new film, "The Two Popes," imagines the relationship between the two men.
Jeffrey Brown has a preview, part of our regular arts and culture series, Canvas.
Rome 2013, a new pope is elected. But the previous pope was still alive. He'd startled the world by resigning. And so, for the first time since 1415, there were two living popes
The film "The Two Popes" takes those basic facts and some of the known details, and imagines the relationship and interaction between the two men, the older German Pope Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins.
Your style and your methods are entirely different to mine. I don't agree with any — most of the things you say, think, or do, but, for some strange reason, now I can see a necessity for Bergoglio.
The younger Argentinean Cardinal Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce.
Why do the presidents of America and Russia and China come to you? Because, unlike them, your authority comes from the fact that you will suffer and die in the job, a martyr to justice and truth. For this, all people come.
Francis captured the imagination of many around the world, who wondered if this first pope from Latin America might move the church in a new direction, among them, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles.
I wanted to know more about him. I think he's one of the most important voices in the world today, because he sees the planet as a whole thing. He sees us as a brotherhood, and not as different nationalities or — so, while everybody's trying to build walls, he's trying to build bridges. And I love that idea.
Meirelles, who received an Oscar nomination for best director of the 2002 film "City of God" worked from a script by Anthony McCarten, who'd conceived the idea for "The Two Popes," and knew he would have to, in his words, tread carefully.
You felt that?
Well, yes. I was raised Catholic, Fernando also. We're not — we wouldn't profess to be tremendous Catholics, but it's in the bloodstream.
And so I knew of the delicacies of the issues. I grew up with them.
So, you tell us at the beginning inspired by true events. So, how much is — what does that mean? How much is fact? How much is speculation?
What this film really is, is that we know the stated positions on both popes on all various issues. My conceit was to then put those — that into the form of dialogue, of a debate, of an intellectual theological confrontation.
And that was the sort of eureka moment: Let's bring these two together, because they did come together.
Benedict was the conservative, and one whose papacy became mired in scandals both in and outside the Vatican.
A butler, a banker and a growing scandal at the Vatican.
Francis was seen as a reformer, open to change on social issues.
When I first read the script, for me, Pope Benedict was the bad guy, and Pope Francis was the good guy, maybe because I like Pope Francis.
But then, working on the process of the film and reading more about Benedict, I just started seeing some gray areas, and I start to understand.
I don't agree much with Pope Benedict, the traditional point of view of the church, but I understand his point. He has a point. And so the film is not black and white.
You know, the hardest thing is to listen, to hear his voice, God's voice.
On one level, this movie is about that debate, which is larger than the Catholic Church, which is raging around the globe between the conservative approach and the progressive one.
How I began to see them over time, however, is, I started to see their similarities, the points of commonality between them. They both grew up under dictatorships. They both had to work a path through it.
And so we see the young Bergoglio, played by Juan Minujin, trying to steer a clean course through Argentina's military dictatorship.
His failure to protect his priests from torture and prison would haunt him.
Director Meirelles saw the parallels in neighboring Brazil.
All of us have friends that, I mean, lost friends or parents or relatives because of the dictatorship. So this was another part of this script that I liked very much, being able to revisit the spirit in Argentina. Same thing was happening in Brazil.
Inner struggles and verbal jousting, a gorgeous setting, including a full recreation of the Sistine Chapel, and in Hopkins and Pryce, two supremely talented actors offering a lesson in their craft.
What do you do as a director when you have actors like that? What is the direction?
Try not to bother and let them do what they knew how to do better than me.
They're very different in the way they approach the part. Tony, Tony Hopkins, is very technical. He studies the part and the lines for months before he is on set.
Do you know the Beatles?
Yes, I know who they are.
Of course you do.
No, I don't know her.
He's really obsessed with the lines, with each word. He changes the words. He changed the pause in the line.
And Jonathan, his preparation is more trying to understand the character, to get the feeling, the smile, the movement. So, he — like he's incorporating Pope Francis.
Christ did not come down from the cross.
Ah, God always grants you the right words.
Oh, no, no. A pope must go on forever, be the personification of the crucified Christ.
If you do this, you will damage the papacy forever.
But they're both fantastic.
I can't remember a film where I saw so many tight close-ups. Is that because you love their faces? Or why was that?
Because they're so good. And it's amazing how you can read what they're thinking by their eyes and by their little movements.
I love to read faces. I mean, I'm very — I always pay attention in faces. And I wanted to read their thoughts.
In the end, both director and writer of "The Two Popes" felt they were dealing with a bigger story.
The stories I'm drawn to are intimate and epic at the same time. And this is a perfect example.
These are themes of, how do we find common ground between two people who are polar opposites? And I think the fate of the world at any given moment relies upon the fact that there must be common ground found.
"The Two Popes" is streaming now on Netflix.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown from the Toronto International Film Festival.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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