With great tension between these two Catholic leaders, the true story behind The Two Popes certainly didn't involve the pizza-eating, soccer-watching hangouts that the Netflix movie depicts.
In February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he resigned from the papacy — a first in nearly 600 years of modern church history. Then, a month later, Pope Francis was elected as his successor. Now, Catholic faithfuls have two living popes at once.
The glaring contrast between their religious philosophies is at the core of the Netflix film The Two Popes, a re-imagining of events that led to the awkward power struggle between the two church figures.
The Shadow Pope
The last time there was more than one living pope was six centuries ago during the Western Schism, also known as the Great Schism, when there were two (then later three) rivaling popes leading separate congregations. The Great Schism ended in 1417 with the election of Pope Martin V.
Six hundred years later, Pope Benedict XVI would buck church tradition by resigning from the papacy, a position typically held for life.
This meant there would be two living popes at the same time, which sparked concern within the Catholic Church and among religious experts, who suspected another power struggle for the papacy.
While Benedict’s official reason for leaving alluded to his waning physical health and mental powers, some suspect that a leak of documents exposing Vatican power struggles may have played a role.
The former pope still lives inside the Vatican grounds and continues to make visits with heads of state. Despite his lingering presence, he has largely avoided voicing opposition against the progressive values Pope Francis has tried to push inside the church since ascending to the papacy.
But last year Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly published a controversial essay in a German magazine, in which he explicitly blamed the sex abuses inside the church on homosexuality and the sexual freedom revolution, bizarrely claiming pedophilia as an approved behavior by sexual liberals.
“Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” the former pope wrote in his native German. “Ultimately the reason is the absence of God.”
The statement came a few months after Pope Francis summoned world bishops to convene on the sex abuse epidemic inside the church. The current pope has condemned the church’s failure to handle the abuses adequately.
Pope Benedict’s essay was then regarded as a rebuke to Pope Francis’ efforts to clean house. There is an obvious divide the two church leaders represent, contradicting beliefs that could continue to disrupt the church.
As Anthony McCarten stated in his book The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, which was adapted into Netflix’s The Two Popes: “For every papal pronouncement… there walks and breathes the rebuttal, the living counterargument — invalidating it.”
So how did the conservative Pope Benedict XVI willingly give up the papacy, especially if it meant possibly having a progressive successor like Pope Francis take over?
Contrasting Beliefs At The Front Of The Church
Directed by Academy Award-nominated director Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes focuses on multiple imagined dialogues between the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the more liberal Pope Francis, then still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, about the future of the Catholic Church.
Both popes are played by veteran actors — Pope Benedict XVI is played by Anthony Hopkins while Pope Francis is portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, who is a dead ringer for the Latin American pope.
“It seemed it was going to be on the cards for quite awhile,” Pryce joked at the Toronto International Film Festival. “The day Pope Francis was declared Pope, the Internet was full of images of me and him, and ‘Is Jonathan Pryce the Pope?’ Even my son texted me, ‘Dad are you the Pope?'”
As for Meirelles’ casting of Hopkins, the director said in an interview with USA Today: “To be honest, I think Pope Benedict is better in our film than he is in real life, [more] charismatic… Anthony Hopkins can’t help himself, he’s charming. So, good for Pope Benedict.”
The arguments between the two popes on the importance for the church to stay constant or adapt with modern society is the core of the film, but it’s hard to say whether any such hard conversations ever took place between the real-life figures. Nevertheless, the lines uttered by their fictional portrayals are inspired by real things that both of the popes said.
“All the dialogue, this is all taken from speeches or interviews or their writings,” Meirelles explained. “So what they say in the film is what they did say at some point in their lives.”
The True Story Of The Two Popes
Although the conversations between the popes were based on their public statements, the film is largely embellished with some facts kept out.
“The script was quite difficult because at the end of the day it’s two men talking about religion – not very exciting. So it was a big challenge to make it entertaining and engaging,” Meirelles said.
Pope Benedict XVI does play piano (he favors Mozart instead of the jazzy tune Hopkins plays in the movie) and enjoys Fanta a lot. But the lunch inside the Sistine Chapel depicted in the film never happened as far as we know.
“The Fanta is real,” said Meirelles. “The two popes did meet three times before Pope Francis was elected. So the meetings are real as well. But the pizza I just came up with. That was my thing.”
Pope Francis, being Argentinian, is a real soccer fan, but the two have probably never watched a game together. In fact, during the 2014 World Cup, the Vatican put out a statement clarifying the two popes would likely not be watching the game together, even though their home countries were facing off against each other.
There are a couple of intense scenes as the film touches on some heavier sources of conflict within the church, namely its mishandling of the sex abuses done by the clergy men. One of the more controversial scenes involved a confessional between Pope Benedict and Francis.
As Hopkins’ Benedict divulges his papal sins, the name “Marcial Maciel” can barely be heard before his words become totally inaudible. The name refers to Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the order of priests called the Legion of Christ.
Maciel was famously favored by Pope John Paul II before he was found to be a serial pedophile who had also fathered several children with at least two women. Though the scene implies that Pope Benedict covered up Maciel’s crimes, in reality he was the one to remove Maciel after he became pope.
Critics argue the movie is disproportionately favorable toward Pope Francis who, in spite of his progressive inclinations, has made his own lapses in judgement.
But the most glaring fictionalization is perhaps the peaceful alliance between the two popes portrayed in the film, when in real life that relationship happens to be much more complicated.
Next, read these 20 powerful quotes by Pope Francis on climate change. Then learn about the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I.