'The Two Popes' True Story: Separating Fact and Fiction in the Netflix Movie

When it comes to modern day figures of power, the pope is probably one of the most mysterious. With much of his life spent in the sanctuary of the Vatican, and almost all of his conversations with staff and fellow clergy private, most of us know very little about the real men behind the cassock.

As such, The Two Popes, the new Netflix movie, provided a unique challenge for its screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who had to bring to life the stories of two popes: The retiring Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the new Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).

The majority of the film is a series of conversations between Benedict and Francis as the two very different figures discuss their shared faith and responsibility, conversations the Netflix movie peppers with flashbacks to Francis' time as working in Argentina during a bloody time in the country's history.

Though the conversation itself is a piece of fiction⁠—one cannot imagine the Catholic Church giving anyone this level of access to the inner workings of the papacy⁠—the screenwriter has done his upmost to make the film as realistic as possible.

This is particularly true of the Argentina sections, many of which were filmed in the actual locations where the events took place. For example, according to an interview McCarten did with NextBestPicture, the confession booth in which we see Francis have the epiphany that he should become a priest is the actual booth where that major event in the future pope's life happened.

McCarten told the website about his approach to real-life subjects: "It has to be authentic. However you get there, you have to do justice to the subject. You can never be sure you get it right, but when you do enough research, you try to love your characters equally. Then I've found that at the end of the day, when the subjects of my movies have been alive, they've approved of the portrait that I've drawn of them."

two popes true story
"The Two Popes" presents an imagined conversations between Popes Benedict and Francis Netflix

Though the central conversation is based on extensive research about the two popes of its title, the writer also admitted that he wrote the two characters to fit into the classic trope of "the odd couple," with one as the funnyman and the other as the straight man.

He said of this: "I knew that Francis is a humorous person and he loves to joke. And I knew that Benedict is something of a stranger to humor and that in itself is funny. I thought I could have some fun as a dramatist showing one guy telling a joke and the other guy not understanding the joke. A lot of the humor comes out of the odd couple nature of that relationship."

In an interview with The Daily Californian, however, he added that he also used the two popes for their symbolic meaning alongside his research. He said: "[The] theological smackdown that this story is was my chance to try and create a debate...where a conservative and a liberal engage in a kind of intellectual boxing match...at a certain point...they realize that being adversarial in a debate and not listening to the other side doesn't get you anywhere—it just drives you deeper into your own prejudices."

As such, though the historical context that led up to the film and the biographical detail about the two popes is all true in the movie, events like the pair watching a football match together are dramatic contrivances from the screenwriter, who has also penned biopics such as Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill and The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking.

In fact, this latter person may offer the best guide about how we should see The Two Popes. In an interview with CruxNow, McCarten reveals that at a screening of The Theory of Everything, "[Hawking's] wife Jane had a tear at the end of the movie, and [Hawking] typed two words into his computer. Then the computer spoke with that iconic voice, 'Broadly true.' I thought, that's close enough for me."

The Two Popes is released on December 20 on Netflix.