There is no mention in the movie of Julio Grassi, the priest currently serving a 15-year sentence for sexually abusing minors in Argentina’s most notorious clerical sex abuse scandal. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did his best to protect Grassi from secular justice, even arranging for the Argentinian bishops’ conference, which was under his presidency, to commission a leading Argentine criminal defense attorney to compile a “forensic study” that claimed Grassi was innocent and sought to discredit his victims. During his trial, Grassi praised Cardinal Bergoglio and thanked him for his support, saying that “Bergoglio never let go of my hand.” Pope Francis has persistently refused to meet with Argentinian victims of clerical sex abuse.
Having tried it a couple of times, I understand the difficulties of converting a real-life story to fictional form, either for stage or screen. Life is too detailed and complex to translate unedited into drama. To marshal the energies of a real-life story, it is always necessary to nip and tuck, elide, compress, transpose, foreshorten, conflate. But in doing this, it is all the more vital that the essence of a story be protected and respected.
McCarten, speaking of writing versions of real-life figures, has said: “Whether they’re alive or dead, you still have to do justice to them. You can’t do injury to their character. You can’t have them doing terrible things when they didn’t do terrible things.” How, then, can he justify The Two Popes? It treats Benedict XVI as though he were not human, as though he were not alive, as though he were unbeloved, as though he had never existed. This is outrageous, yes, but it is also not good art. The propulsion of story is an insufficient justification for the levels of invention, prejudice, and partisanship on display here. The movie title is elaborated by the weasel words, “Inspired by true events.” Yes, but this inspiration has resulted in a farrago of falsehoods. McCarten owes Benedict an apology.
It has been observed that The Two Popes is ultimately frivolous—a “holy bromance,” a “buddy movie,” a sort of “odd couple” remake. So, you know, lighten up! And this is the level on which it is most successful. Yet this is also the movie’s most insidious aspect: It draws you into itself. In the depths of its mendaciousness and shallow moralizing, an engaging and moving story of a personal encounter is told. This means that, as propaganda, this movie is both hugely effective and extremely dangerous.
Excerpts from: Two Popes, Too Many Untruths, by John Waters, published at First Things.