Interview: Anthony McCarten, Screenwriter of The Two Popes

Posted on December 20, 2019 at 7:22 am

My interview with screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Theory of Everything”) about “The Two Popes” has been published by the Association of Women Film Journalists. An excerpt:

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret. Perhaps that is what makes imagining them so irresistible. That is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten has done in fact-based films like Bohemian Rhapsody, The Darkest Hour, and his latest, The Two Popes.

For the first time in nearly 700 years, a pope (Sir Anthony Hopkins as the more conservative Pope Benedict) resigned instead of serving until death. That made it possible for him to play an unprecedented role in encouraging and supporting the choice of his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce as the first pope from the Americas).

Copyright Netflix 2019

In an interview, McCarten talked about what “great directing” by Fernando Meirelles added to the film, and why this is his “most adventurous” film…..Minow: In some of your other films based on real-life characters you had tremendous amounts of information about what went on even in their private moments. You had correspondence and diaries as well as a lot of documentation of their public moments. But here you really had to imagine conversations that no one knows anything about.

McCarten: You’re quite right. This is probably the most adventurous of the films I’ve done. There’s some artistic license but, I hope no less responsible than anything that I’ve done and ultimately, hopefully, no less truthful. These conversations that I imagined are based on deep research. In fact I did so much research that there’s an accompanying nonfiction book that you can buy in all good bookstores which shows how I really went into their pasts and looked at all the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict. It’s essential in all these ventures that you get it right as much as possible and in this particular case it is literally sacred ground. So, it cannot be careless and it cannot be flippant in any way. It has to be embedded in known truths. In fact, even when I create these long dialogues between these two, those dialogues are reflections of their stated positions about the future of this 2000 year old institution.

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Interview

The Two Popes

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of violence, references to sexual abuse, illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 27, 2019
Copyright Netflix 2019

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret.

We will never know what really happened when Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) became the first supreme pontiff to resign since 1294, selecting the man who became Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as his successor. Everything about it was surprising. Popes have almost always served until death, and the selection process, gorgeously visualized here, is ancient and mysterious. We see with the rows of scarlet-clad cardinals clicking their bright blue pens to cast their votes and the two smoke options, black to show no decision yet, white to show that the new pope has been chosen. The idea of a pope resigning (creating the new position of emeritus pope) and guiding the selection of his successor was unprecedented (well, we don’t know much about what happened in the 13th century, but it was so long ago that “unprecedented” seems appropriate) and so there was no template to follow.

And yet, as it cannot help but be, it is political. The cardinals are only human. During the 2005 selection process, While many votes went for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was a long shot. There had never been a Jesuit pope, one from the Americas, one from the Southern Hemisphere. Almost all of the popes have been Italian and all have been from Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who reigned in the 8th century. And so the one selected was a German cardinal named Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

More than geography and religious order separated the two men. Pope Benedict was conservative and traditional. Bergoglio is more liberal, more about Catholicism as a call to compassion and engagement with the community. He lived simply and wanted to return being a parish priest. After a few years, he wanted to retire. He wrote to Pope Benedict to ask for permission but before his letter was received, Pope Benedict wrote to ask him to visit. Bergoglio thinks it is to discuss his retirement. Pope Benedict has another career path in mind.

There are some flashbacks, particularly concerning their deepest regrets and most painful failings. But most of the movie is two of the greatest actors of our time playing two of the most formidable and consequential figures of our time, talking to each other about the most foundational issues of faith and philosophy. Sometimes they are indirect. Sometimes they clash in style and substance. But they always exemplify their commitment to their beliefs with grace and kindness. Pope Benedict plays the piano. Bergoglio orders pizza and Fanta. They develop an understanding and a kind of friendship. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to eavesdrop on this conversation, and inspiring, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes references to and brief depictions of historical atrocities and references to sexual abuse by priests.

Family discussion: What were the biggest differences in viewpoint between the two popes? What was more important to Pope Benedict than their differences in interpretation and commitment to tradition?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” and “Hesburgh”

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