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The Two Popes: Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten on his pontiff what-if

Acclaimed screenwriter Anthony McCarten moves from Queen to bishop in a project pondering the relationship between Pope Francis and predecessor Pope Benedict.

At the end of The Two Popes – that’s the book he wrote, not his same-named film or play from his multimedia papal trinity – Anthony McCarten addresses his holiness directly. “Francesco,” he implores, “rebuild my church.”

It’s the resounding last line in an epilogue in which the New Zealand writer opines on the state of the 2000-year-old institution and draws his own conclusions on why Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 to be replaced by Pope Francis.

It’s also a sign that for the New Zealand novelist, playwright and screenwriter, now best known for his hat-trick of Oscar-winning hit biopics about Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury, this project is as much personal as ecclesiastical.

“Yeah, it is,” he says, down the line from Argentina a few hours before the movie premieres in Buenos Aires, the city where Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936.

“There’s a personal element in everything you create and often you’re not aware of it going in. But it does sort of dawn on you at some point and you realise, ‘Ah, now I know why I’m curious about this subject’, and that was certainly the case with this one.”

As McCarten explains in the book’s prologue, he was raised in a staunchly Irish Catholic household in New Plymouth, where he and his seven siblings attended Catholic schools, clergymen were frequent dinner guests and he served as an altar boy. He’s not a regular Mass attendee these days, but Catholicism’s influence on him, he says, runs deep. “Once stamped, always stamped. I’m still sort of grateful to have been brought up in that culture. It gave me a lot. It gave me a love of language. It exposed me to a certain heightened quality of language from a very early age. It gives you a kind of vocabulary, not only a practical vocabulary, but also everything is seen against the backdrop of the eternal.”

It was that Catholic family connection that, in a way, led him to make The Two Popes, initially into a play, then a film script and a non-fiction book. A few years ago, he was in Rome with his partner, Eva Maywald, when he got a text from a sister to say a cousin had died suddenly and suggesting he should light a candle. The pair went to St Peter’s Basilica to find Pope Francis conducting an open-air Mass. Impressed by the charismatic figure on the rostrum, McCarten found himself pondering where his predecessor – the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now “Pope Emeritus” – might be. He also wondered how long it had been since there were last two living popes. Googling the answer – 700 or so years – started McCarten on a trail to find out more about the pair’s history and their relationship. Quite a lot more, in fact, as the 24 pages of references in the book attest.

That led to the play, which debuted in Britain in June and is heading to the West End. The Two Popes book follows his best-seller based on the research he did for his Churchill movie, Darkest Hour. An editor at Penguin in London had got in touch when the earlier film was announced and suggested a book based on the historical drama would do quite well. “I put the phone down concluding the man had gone nuts. But on my desk was piled up all the research material that I generally end up acquiring when I do these films and I thought, ‘Actually, it’s all here – there is a book here from all the legwork and spadework.”

Confessional: Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. Photo/Supplied
Bashing out a book – the Churchill one took him six weeks – might be seen as an act of penance for creating drama out of history. But having a book accompanying a film “based on real events” also shows his working.

“It may sound defensive, in a way, to defend my position by having the book. But they’re not written as dry, arid testimonials, they’re meant to be entertaining in their own right. I’ve spent a long time writing prose as a novelist. So it’s something I just enjoy on its own merits.”

McCarten was aware while creating the play there was a potential film. He pitched it to Netflix, which immediately said two things: “Yes”, and, “Whatever it costs.”

Which is why there is now a riveting film, also titled The Two Popes, which is already picking up award attention. In the Golden Globes it’s nominated for best picture (drama), best screenplay for McCarten,  best actor for Jonathan Pryce as Francis, and best supporting actor for Anthony Hopkins as Benedict. The movie largely centres on conversations between the pair as Cardinal Bergoglio visits the Holy Father, hoping to get permission to retire, while unknowingly and effectively being interviewed for the top job by Benedict, who is planning his resignation. It also flashes back to Bergoglio’s earlier life and his darkest hours when, as the head of his country’s Jesuit order, he failed to shield his priests from the military junta during Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s. Directed by Brazilian Fernando Mereilles, the scenes of state-sponsored terrorism, torture and murder – with drugged prisoners being tossed into the sea from military aircraft – are a stark contrast to the polite repartee between the two veteran actors. US test audiences questioned the necessity of the flashback scenes, says McCarten, and some were trimmed as a result. But in Argentina, it’s different.

“Here. It’s crucial. It’s still an open wound in this country’s history and they’re still coming to terms with it. There will be people in the audience tonight whose loved ones were ‘disappeared’ during those terrible times when 30,000 people just vanished, never to be recovered. So, the scar is still very raw here. But the film is about grace and forgiveness and moving on and putting your past behind you and acknowledging that, despite our mistakes, we are ultimately human.”

When the film comes to Benedict’s failings of his earlier years – his inconsistent record on dealing with child sexual abuse within the church – McCarten deals with that conspiracy of silence with, well, silence. In one scene Benedict begins a mea culpa to Cardinal Bergoglio about a historical abuse case, only for the film to go mute then cut away. It was scripted and deliberate, says the writer.

“I had looked into Francis’ past and his sins, then it was time for Benedict and I started to write his confession and came to realise that no matter how long the list of sins he admits, it will never feel sufficient given the sheer volume of the mistakes committed by the church in recent de-cades. It occurred to me it might be more powerful to just create an empty space where we don’t hear what that confession is, into which people could fill in the blank of their sadness or rage at this institution and supply that missing element.”

Such are the creative decisions when playing god with two popes. He’s not aware of any reaction as yet from the Vatican about the film. “I think they’ll neither confirm nor deny if anyone high up sees it. Various members of the clergy as high as bishops have seen it. I think that they are grateful for the film because it shows that there are still people working within this institution who are trying to do good work every day. It’s a sympathetic double portrait of two men doing a thankless job, and you know, who wants a new job at the age of 75?

“And it’s the toughest job in the world, with an institution clearly facing the gravest crisis since the Reformation. So, I felt sympathetic to their plights but I didn’t want to whitewash them, I wanted to show them as they are, warts and all. Although there is an element of artistic licence that I use in telling these stories, it is embedded in deep research and it’s not flippant and it’s not just done for effect. It always has to be in the search of truth. There are many ways to get to the truth. And sometimes head-on isn’t the best way. Sometimes you have to use sort of an artifice, not be literal. But painters have known that for a long time. Sometimes, an impressionistic painting is a more accurate representation of what a field of sunflowers looks like than a photograph.”

It turns out, in this depiction anyway, that the two popes might not be as different as all that. McCarten hopes that his odd-couple papal biopic may speak to the wider world, too.

“There are 1.2 billion Catholics – it’s a significant global institution and, it seems to me now, like a perfect analogue for society at large because the challenges it’s facing are similar to the challenges that are being played out on a global scale, where you have conservatives and progressives increasingly at loggerheads and they’ve ceased listening to each other and their positions are even more polarised.

“So, my little story of a progressive and a conservative searching for some common ground does, perhaps in a small way, speak to that broader conversation.”

The Two Popes book (Viking) is out; The Two Popes film is in cinemas and screens on Netflix from December 20.

This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.