How The Two Popes Condemns Current-Day Authoritarianism

The film’s references to radical pedagogical texts can be read as a subtle rebuke of Brazil’s Bolsonarismo.

The Two Popes is really about one pope: It’s an emphatic endorsement of Francis, his simple manner, his concern for the poor, and the journey that made his papacy possible. (Peter Mountain / Netflix)

In The Two Popes, a recent feature film produced by Netflix, Father Jorge Bergoglio is sent into the wilderness, where he wanders alone in the Argentine mountains for two years. During an intense process of spiritual rebirth—crucial to his transformation into Pope Francis—he turns to radical books of the very kind he had cleared out of the Jesuit order in the late 1970s, during the military dictatorship in Argentina. In one scene, the camera pauses briefly on the cover of one volume: 1968’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, the educator whose legacy the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, spent the past year attacking. The shot is just one of many that might hold special significance with Latin Americans now living through the return of authoritarian politics, especially in the director Fernando Meirelles’s native Brazil.

On its face, The Two Popes is a buddy comedy, propelled by impressive performances from Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI (né Joseph Ratzinger) and Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio (later, Pope Francis). Meirelles (who co-directed City of God) works with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten to deliver warm, engaging scenes. But the film is also a story of forgiveness and redemption from sin—and that great sin is collaboration with the murderous dictatorships of the 20th century.

In the film’s depiction of the era during which most of South America was governed by U.S.-backed, anti-communist military regimes, Bergoglio watches as priests are murdered and dissidents are hauled away. As the leader of the Jesuit order, he hides books that might appear too Marxist or too Freudian. One of those texts is by Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian archbishop who stood up to the dictatorship in his own country, railing publicly against human-rights abuses until the country transitioned back to democracy. Bergoglio instead cooperates with the Argentine junta in order to protect his priests. It doesn’t work—at least, it doesn’t work well enough. Under the rule of dictatorial men, he learns, even those who do everything right still have their loved ones thrown into the sea. Two Jesuits are imprisoned and tortured. Esther Ballestrino, a close friend of Bergoglio’s, is disappeared. Bergoglio is wracked with guilt for decades, and believes that as a result of his past failures, he can never be pope.

The scenes depicting Bergoglio’s experiences during this period are central to the story, providing a subtle but powerful rebuke of violent authoritarianism—Bolsonarismo in particular. Brazil’s Bolsonaro is probably the most extreme of the world’s new crop of elected right-wing authoritarians: His political life is best understood as the reincarnation of the ideology that powered Cold War dictatorships like Argentina’s. As a young congressman, he said that Brazil “will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do: killing some 30,000 people.” He added, “If some innocents die, that’s just fine.” In 2016, he thrust himself into the center of South American politics by dedicating his vote to impeach the left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel who oversaw her torture. Meirelles has called Bolsonaro “a moron.” By featuring texts by progressive, Catholic, anti-dictatorship authors, and building a story around overcoming the legacy that Bolsonaro’s government celebrates, The Two Popes makes a much more serious point: that rejecting Bolsonarismo, in whatever form it takes around the world, is morally liberating.

The Two Popes is really about one pope: It’s an emphatic endorsement of Francis, his simple manner, his concern for the poor, and the journey that made his papacy possible. The main function of Pope Benedict in the film is to meet Bergoglio, and finally grant him absolution for his collaboration with the authoritarian regime. In the pivotal scene, a pained Bergoglio confesses that his judgment badly failed when the generals took over. He says that his daily works since have been “some kind of a penance,” but still he suffers. There’s no evidence that guilt for what happened in this era dominated the rest of Bergoglio’s life, as the film implies. But the film’s clear message is that he can learn from those experiences, and use them to act differently than he did in the ’70s. The books that Meirelles plants throughout are used at crucial junctures in Bergoglio’s transformation. The bishop packs away the text by Câmara in the same scene that Ballestrino looks at him, for the first time, as if he is a traitor. And he pulls out the Freire title on radical education while studying to be a new type of shepherd. Now, the film says, he can return from the desert reborn and start his ministry. He can become Pope Francis.

For the contemporary viewer, especially in Latin America, the lesson of forgiveness is relevant. Though Brazil’s election was fraught—Bolsonaro’s main opponent was jailed by the man who is now the country’s justice minister—the fact remains that Bolsonaro did get a lot of votes. More and more Latin Americans are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical faiths, whose members are far more conservative. The film shows that everyone makes mistakes, and for those who stray, it is always possible to come back from the dark side.

Another book that Bergoglio reads in the film’s exile flashback is by Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologian who left the priesthood after sparring with Rome over his left-wing interpretation of the faith. Boff praised The Two Popes, writing, “The film is a beautiful metaphor for the human condition—it presents two different ways of being human, which are not contradictory but complementary … And the forgiveness [Benedict and Bergoglio] grant each other before their final, long and caring embrace demonstrates that there is humanity and spirituality in each of us.”