Fact vs. Fiction: The Story Behind Two Popes

It was newsworthy because Pope Benedict resigned from his Papal office in 2013. Two popes lived at the same moment for the first time in more than 600 years. A pope resigned for the first time since 1294. The Vatican was home to two popes for the first time in history. Netflix’s The Two Popes is based on Anthony McCarten’s play The Pope. It focuses on the encounters between Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) and Pope Benedict XVI, (Anthony Hopkins), in a series before the former’s resignation.

There has been much debate about the historical accuracy and inaccuracy of the film. The scenes with the two men eating pizza and drinking Fanta have also been raised. We spoke to Camilla Mastrangelo, Vatican Walkings’ guide to gain a better understanding of the story.

Pope and pope meet: Screening historic figures

Antony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce portray Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. Image courtesy Studio Lucherini Pignatelli.

The Two Popes is an attempt to highlight the importance of fostering dialogue between opposing parties, with a focus on human similarities between the leaders. This is a timely theme in a time of so many opinions. It’s no surprise that these two men are a key part of the story.

Camilla states, “Of course, they are two very distinct personalities, two very separate men.” “On the one hand, we have a conservative man like Ratzinger, and on the other, a man for the future, a man who was raised in a totally different environment, such as Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis.”

They are shown as two sides to the same coin in the film, but the acting is a great help to create a convincing portrayal. Camilla points out that Jonathan Pryce has similar expressions and voices [as Pope Francis].” Although Anthony Hopkins isn’t exactly the same as Benedict, he still gives a fantastic performance. You can truly experience the different personalities of these men.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Vatican has been, for Camilla, the personalities of the popes. It’s fascinating to discover about the personalities and lives of popes, what they did, who they were, and why. Alexander Borgia, who was notorious for his many scandals, and Pope Paul VI, who was well-known for modernizing the church.

“In the past, the pope was required to wear a crown. A crown makes a person look more like a king. They are less approachable because of it. Paul VI said, “No more crown. Let’s use a little white cap.” These little things are amazing, they make the pope seem more human.

What was Pope Francis’s difference?

The Two Popes shows Pope Francis living a simpler life than the traditional pope. But how true is this and how much was made up for the film?

Camilla states, “First of all he is a Jesuit and that’s quite different.” When he was elected to the office of Pope Francis in 2013, he became the first Jesuit pope of the Catholic church. It is important to choose the name of St. Francis, like St. Francis of Assisi, the saint for the poor, because it represents Francis’s goal: to humble himself, to be more like Jesus, and to be less like the poor. He does not wear the expensive shoes of the popes before him, but he prefers to wear very ordinary shoes. Sometimes, you can even see him without his white hat.”

His pared-down lifestyle goes beyond clothes. He’s now using a second-hand Ford Focus in blue, instead of the large black Mercedes the two previous popes had. He does not live in the grand papal apartments where he has lived for 200 years. He lives in a tiny guesthouse in the Vatican, with only two rooms and one bathroom. He speaks in a very simple and easy way that anyone can understand. That appeals to everyone. It’s easy to tell when you visit St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, or Wednesday during the audience. He is loved by all.

The pope has also made a significant change in his lifestyle over the years. He no longer uses Castel Gandolfo for his summer home. Camilla tells me that this is the first time a pope did it. “The popes before him would always visit Castel Gandolfo in the summer holidays. Francis has never taken a vacation in six years as pope. Castel Gandolfo opened its doors to the public a few years back as a museum. You can also take the train to visit the beautiful bedrooms and gardens surrounding the Papal palace.

Is Pope Francis really trying to resign?

The film’s focus is on Bergoglio’s attempts to resign. But was this actually possible? Yes and no. Yes and no. One of the rules of the Church states that cardinals must give their resignation to the pope at 75. He can accept or decline it. It is unclear if they actually met in private before Benedict’s 2012 resignation. Most people assume that the meeting between Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio didn’t take place because cardinals don’t have to present their resignations to the pope in person. Camilla says it is possible. It seems that he did indeed travel to Rome before his retirement and that there are rumours of these meetings. We don’t know the truth. Do I believe they ate pizza or watched the world championships? Most likely not. However, if he did leave, his gesture of coming to Rome to resign would be very meaningful.”

It is interesting to note that Pope Francis, upon his assumption of office, changed the rule that noncardinal bishops serving at the Vatican would now be able to offer resignations rather than lose their positions automatically.

How about the dialogue?

The film centers around a series of meetings and the dialogue is central to the story. This was a crucial aspect for McCarten and Fernando Meirelles. Many of the discussions on philosophical debates in this movie are based upon official documents, including recordings, writings, and interviews. Viewers can therefore be sure that the conversations were based on the actual statements of the men.

Camilla’s view of The Two Popes is a true representation of a unique situation. It can be best described as a faithful portrayal of an imagined encounter. “I have been living in Rome, surrounded by the Vatican, pope and Catholic religion my entire life, so I can tell you it’s very well done, very realistic.”

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