The Church-politics premises of the movie are the jaw-numbingly predictable ones: The Church as represented by Ratzinger / Benedict is “out of touch with the modern world” and this is a bad thing; Bergoglio’s professed desire to bring the Church “into the 21st century” is self-evidently noble and righteous.

Everything about The Two Popes is designed to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Catholicism / Christianity, and everything to do with purveying a bogus notion of freedom in the public realm. The word “reforms” is used as though its virtue were self-evident and unassailable. “The Church votes to make overdue reforms remain overdue,” Bergoglio accuses. The audience is expected to recognize this proposition and nod in agreement. But there is nothing to guide anyone toward a true understanding of the implications. … Everything is grist to the mill of the agenda. … .

The “two popes” take turns at hearing each others’ confessions. Bergoglio tells of his failures to support fellow priests during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” during the “Process of National Reorganization” which followed the ascent to power of a military junta in the 1970s. Pope Benedict tries to reassure him about the efforts he made at that time.

Bergoglio flagellates himself: “My dear friend, where was I—where was Christ?—in all this? Was he taking tea in the presidential palace?” Later he admits: “I am a divisive figure in Argentina,” one of the few statements from the mouth of the Bergoglio character that rings completely true.

The implication of the storyline is that by underlining Bergoglio’s guilt over his failure to stand up to Argentina’s oppressive dictatorship, the movie offers a kind of balance: Both popes are shown warts-and-all. But no: The account of Bergoglio’s actions/inaction during the Dirty War are taken from the official record; the depiction of Ratzinger/Benedict is—overwhelmingly—invented.

There follows a sequence that goes beyond crimes of falsification, deceitfulness, and cheating. In the course of his “confession,” Benedict becomes agitated and starts to relate some hitherto unrevealed “sin” from his past. As he does so, his voice is drowned out as though by some kind of interference. We see his lips move; we see the shocked face of Bergoglio. When the sound comes back up, Benedict seems to be finishing some account of his negligence while Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. It is intimated that he failed to act against a Mexican priest, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ: Marcial Maciel Degollado, a sexual abuser of boys. When he is finished, Bergoglio does something a trained priest would never do: He stands up and begins to remonstrate with the penitent who has just unburdened himself.

To the extent that this scene seeks to uphold the calumny that Pope Benedict in some way collaborated in the cover-up of clerical child abuse, it is false and grossly libellous. It was Ratzinger who, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, altered the canonical procedures to make it possible to remove those using the priesthood to prey upon—mostly—teenage boys. As Pope Benedict, he kicked hundreds of such individuals out of the priesthood, including Maciel. In fact, it was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who in 2001 authorized an investigation into the accusations against Maciel. This investigation continued until 2006, by which time Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, Cardinal William Levada, decided—“taking into account both the advanced age of Father Maciel as well as his poor health—to drop the canonical process and invite him to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry.” Pope Benedict approved these decisions. Maciel died in 2008, the highest-ranking priest ever disciplined because of sexual abuse allegations.