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New film 'The Two Popes' explores Catholic ideology's 'gray areas'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: There had not been a papal resignation since 1415, but Pope Benedict did just that in 2013.

At the time, his successor, Pope Francis, could not have been more different.

Now, a new film, "The Two Popes," imagines the relationship between the two men.

Jeffrey Brown has a preview, part of our regular arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Rome 2013, a new pope is elected. But the previous pope was still alive. He'd startled the world by resigning. And so, for the first time since 1415, there were two living popes

The film "The Two Popes" takes those basic facts and some of the known details, and imagines the relationship and interaction between the two men, the older German Pope Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins.

Anthony Hopkins: Your style and your methods are entirely different to mine. I don't agree with any -- most of the things you say, think, or do, but, for some strange reason, now I can see a necessity for Bergoglio.

Jeffrey Brown: The younger Argentinean Cardinal Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce.

Jonathan Pryce: Why do the presidents of America and Russia and China come to you? Because, unlike them, your authority comes from the fact that you will suffer and die in the job, a martyr to justice and truth. For this, all people come.

Jeffrey Brown: Francis captured the imagination of many around the world, who wondered if this first pope from Latin America might move the church in a new direction, among them, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles.

Fernando Meirelles: I wanted to know more about him. I think he's one of the most important voices in the world today, because he sees the planet as a whole thing. He sees us as a brotherhood, and not as different nationalities or -- so, while everybody's trying to build walls, he's trying to build bridges. And I love that idea.

Jeffrey Brown: Meirelles, who received an Oscar nomination for best director of the 2002 film "City of God" worked from a script by Anthony McCarten, who'd conceived the idea for "The Two Popes," and knew he would have to, in his words, tread carefully.

You felt that?

Anthony McCarten: Well, yes. I was raised Catholic, Fernando also. We're not -- we wouldn't profess to be tremendous Catholics, but it's in the bloodstream.

And so I knew of the delicacies of the issues. I grew up with them.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you tell us at the beginning inspired by true events. So, how much is -- what does that mean? How much is fact? How much is speculation?

Anthony McCarten: What this film really is, is that we know the stated positions on both popes on all various issues. My conceit was to then put those -- that into the form of dialogue, of a debate, of an intellectual theological confrontation.

And that was the sort of eureka moment: Let's bring these two together, because they did come together.

Jeffrey Brown: Benedict was the conservative, and one whose papacy became mired in scandals both in and outside the Vatican.

Judy Woodruff: A butler, a banker and a growing scandal at the Vatican.

Jeffrey Brown: Francis was seen as a reformer, open to change on social issues.

Fernando Meirelles: When I first read the script, for me, Pope Benedict was the bad guy, and Pope Francis was the good guy, maybe because I like Pope Francis.

But then, working on the process of the film and reading more about Benedict, I just started seeing some gray areas, and I start to understand.

I don't agree much with Pope Benedict, the traditional point of view of the church, but I understand his point. He has a point. And so the film is not black and white.

Anthony Hopkins: You know, the hardest thing is to listen, to hear his voice, God's voice.

Anthony McCarten: On one level, this movie is about that debate, which is larger than the Catholic Church, which is raging around the globe between the conservative approach and the progressive one.

How I began to see them over time, however, is, I started to see their similarities, the points of commonality between them. They both grew up under dictatorships. They both had to work a path through it.

Jeffrey Brown: And so we see the young Bergoglio, played by Juan Minujin, trying to steer a clean course through Argentina's military dictatorship.

His failure to protect his priests from torture and prison would haunt him.

Director Meirelles saw the parallels in neighboring Brazil.

Fernando Meirelles: All of us have friends that, I mean, lost friends or parents or relatives because of the dictatorship. So this was another part of this script that I liked very much, being able to revisit the spirit in Argentina. Same thing was happening in Brazil.

Jeffrey Brown: Inner struggles and verbal jousting, a gorgeous setting, including a full recreation of the Sistine Chapel, and in Hopkins and Pryce, two supremely talented actors offering a lesson in their craft.

What do you do as a director when you have actors like that? What is the direction?

Fernando Meirelles: Try not to bother and let them do what they knew how to do better than me.

They're very different in the way they approach the part. Tony, Tony Hopkins, is very technical. He studies the part and the lines for months before he is on set.

Anthony Hopkins: Do you know the Beatles?

Jonathan Pryce: Yes, I know who they are.

Anthony Hopkins: Of course you do.

Jonathan Pryce: "Eleanor Rigby."

Anthony Hopkins: Who?

Jonathan Pryce: "Eleanor Rigby."

Anthony Hopkins: No, I don't know her.

Fernando Meirelles: He's really obsessed with the lines, with each word. He changes the words. He changed the pause in the line.

And Jonathan, his preparation is more trying to understand the character, to get the feeling, the smile, the movement. So, he -- like he's incorporating Pope Francis.

Jonathan Pryce: Christ did not come down from the cross.

Anthony Hopkins: Ah, God always grants you the right words.

Jonathan Pryce: Oh, no, no. A pope must go on forever, be the personification of the crucified Christ.

If you do this, you will damage the papacy forever.

Anthony McCarten: But they're both fantastic.

Jeffrey Brown: I can't remember a film where I saw so many tight close-ups. Is that because you love their faces? Or why was that?

Fernando Meirelles: Because they're so good. And it's amazing how you can read what they're thinking by their eyes and by their little movements.

I love to read faces. I mean, I'm very -- I always pay attention in faces. And I wanted to read their thoughts.

Jeffrey Brown: In the end, both director and writer of "The Two Popes" felt they were dealing with a bigger story.

Anthony McCarten: The stories I'm drawn to are intimate and epic at the same time. And this is a perfect example.

These are themes of, how do we find common ground between two people who are polar opposites? And I think the fate of the world at any given moment relies upon the fact that there must be common ground found.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Two Popes" is streaming now on Netflix.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown from the Toronto International Film Festival.

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