Vatican on Screen: Behind The Scenes of the Two Popes

One of the most important elements in a film’s production is its scenery. As filming places, there are few locations more stunning than those featured on Netflix’s Two Popes.

The film is set in the wake of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, (Anthony Hopkins), and focuses on a series of conversations between Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), and Benedict (after the latter resigned).

A tete-a-tete between two popes can go in many different directions. Screenwriter Antony McCarten chose to focus the film instead on the people behind these titles, despite juxtaposing Benedict’s conservative nature with Pope Francis’ liberal counterpart.

Even though their perspectives may clash, the film seeks to highlight their similarities and not their differences.

The script, however, was based on a historical encounter and required to be realized on a large scale. You can expect large replicas, gardens, and palaces. We take you behind the scenes to see the incredible locations featured in Two Popes.

Take a guided tour of Castel Gandolfo to see the beauty for yourself, which includes access to the Papal Palace as well as the Barberini Gardens.


Castel Gandolfo is the summer retreat of Pope Pius XII and the primary location for The Two Popes

Castel Gandolfo’s beautiful grounds

The visually striking Castel Gandolfo is one of The Two Popes’ primary locations.

This picturesque town is home to the historic summer residence of Pope Pio. It is located forty minutes from Rome.

Built-in the 17th century, the palace was used as a refuge by Pope Urban VIII in order to escape from Rome. It has been used almost continuously since then, housing hundreds of Jews under the protection of a group of volunteers and guards.

After he resigned Benedict celebrated the end of his papal papacy in the Palace at Castel Gandolfo. He chose to stay there until the new pope was elected by the Papal Conclave. The two historical popes met here when Pope Francis was elected on March 23, 2013. Instantly, images of the pair hugging at Castel Gandolfo’s helipad became popular in the media. News headlines were filled with speculations about their 45-minute meeting. It was a prime location for The Two Popes.

Pope Francis also opened Castel Gandolfo’s Papal Palace and Gardens to the public, as part of a series of changes that he made during his tenure. Mark Tildesley, Architectural Digest producer, explained to Mark Tildesley that although the crew was granted permission to film exterior shots, they were not allowed to film inside the palace. They instead used two palaces at the outskirts to film interior shots and close-ups.

This shows how rare it is to be able to see the grounds and that the next pope might decide to keep them open.

How filmmakers recreated Sistine Chapel to build the Vatican

Fernando Meirelles, director, and Jonathan Pryce filming The Two Popes. Image courtesy Studio Lucherini Pignatelli

It is not easy to set up a film at the Vatican, especially considering that the Vatican does not allow the filming of fiction within its grounds. The Vatican does not allow documentaries to be shot inside. Even that is only on a case-by-case basis.

Tildesley spoke to GoldDerby and described how he was able to circumvent this rule by using a combination of substitute locations to create the Vatican on-screen. They were able to locate a variety of buildings built during the same time period as the Vatican by doing some location research. They recreated the feel and look of the Vatican exterior shots by filming at Castera and Mondragone, among other locations.

Replacements are only as good as the Vatican. The production designers worked closely with historians to create faithful reproductions of the Vatican’s details.

Tildesley spoke to AD about how the Sistine Chapel was built. It took eight weeks for a group of designers to ‘tattoo’ copies of the paintings onto walls at Cinecitta Studios, Rome. The works’ depth and vibrancy were brought to life by this process, which was much quicker than spending hours replicating the paintings (which they had considered doing for a while!). What was the end result? It was so realistic that even the Vatican experts were convinced to come in and inspect the room before filming began!

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