“The Two Popes” director Fernando Meirelles said he hopes the forthcoming Netflix drama will foster unity and dialogue in a society he described as being largely devoid of compassion, empathy, and mercy.
“The whole world is very polarized right now,” Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”), told The Christian Post in an exclusive interview. “We don’t know how to disagree anymore. We want to eliminate whoever thinks differently.
"Unfortunately, the Church is not immune from this," he added. "We’re creating a very unfair society where we continue to build walls instead of bridges, and my hope is that ‘The Two Popes’ causes us to re-think the way we approach those we disagree with.”
Starring Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) as the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, and Jonathan Pryce ("Brazil," "Carrington"), as Pope Francis, "The Two Popes" is an imagined series of conversations between the two pontiffs. The two very different men must confront their pasts and rely on mercy, understanding, and forgiveness to find common ground and forge a future for the faithful around the world.
Nominated for four Golden Globes, the film humanizes the two Catholic leaders, offering the timely reminder that religious leaders are fallible individuals who require tolerance and understanding, Meirelles said.
“Both of these men struggle with forgiveness and self-forgiveness for mistakes they’ve made in their past,” the Brazilian director said. “At the end of the day, they’re humans and they represent an institution. They’re fallible. I wanted the film to have the perspective that, you believe in God, but you are not God. You are human, and you can fail. I believe that very much.”
A professing Catholic — although “not a very good one,” Meirelles said of himself — he's “fascinated” with Francis, whom he said has pushed the Catholic Church to re-examine its approach to inclusion and mercy.
“I was never interested in the Vatican until Pope Francis came along,” he admitted. “And he is such a charming guy with interesting thoughts on science and other issues, yet he is a pretty divisive figure within the Church. I became a big fan of his. Pope Francis’ main message is mercy, which is why that is one of the biggest themes in this film.”
The pontiff, Meirelles contended, can be credited with bringing young people back to the Catholic Church.
“Young people are coming back to the Church because of Pope Francis; he’s looking at the world and building bridges for whoever is around,” he said. “The Church is more connected to the world than it was before. Pope Francis is trying to move a step forward and make it even closer.”
While the pretext of the film is fiction and the conversations between the two popes likely never happened, it grapples with issues prevalent in the Church, from political and social issues to matters of faith and spirituality. Additionally, much of the dialogue is rooted in comments made by both Benedict and Francis.
“I think the film has an interesting message on different levels: There’s a personal level which is on tolerance and forgiveness and self-forgiveness,” Meirelles said. “A lot of people have difficult lives because they cannot forgive. This film gives people permission to forgive both themselves and others.”
But the “Two Popes” also has a “political message,” the director said, adding: “I wanted to push this idea of building bridges and not walls. We finished the film referring to the climate refugee crisis, which I think will become an even bigger issue over the next decade.”
Finally, the film has a “spiritual message,” Meirelles added, citing one particularly powerful scene in which Benedict experiences separation from God, admitting that while he’s often been alone, he’s “never lonely … until now.”
“It’s this idea of having a ‘dark night of the soul,’ when you believe in something but you can’t feel it every day,” he said. “Sometimes you’re just not feeling anything. I think this idea of, you believe in something, but sometimes you just don’t get it. But you just keep going, and that’s faith. Maybe your dark night lasts seven, 10 years, but you keep going, and one day, the light shines through.”
“Faith,” he added, “is continuing to believe even when you don’t know why. I think this film drives that message home.”
"The Two Popes" will air on Netflix starting Dec. 20. The 125-minute movie is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images.