Netflix’s ‘The Two Popes’ Facing Backlash for Alleged ‘Lies’

Acclaimed Netflix original film, The Two Popes is being denounced by some for alleged "lies" about the leaders of the Catholic Church. Reviews for the movie have been relatively good within the filmmaking community, and it was even nominated for three Oscars this year. However, some religious scholars have identified historical inaccuracies in the story, and argue that the movie is fictitious altogether.

The Two Popes is a biographical drama about Pope Benedict XVI — played by Anthony Hopkins — and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis — played by Jonathan Pryce. The poster even says the movie is "inspired by true events," but some viewers are saying that the whole thing is false.

An article published in The National Review titled "The Lies of The Two Popes" called it a "fantasy built on lies," while a review by Catholic News Service called it a "glossy but highly speculative account of supposedly real events." In many cases, these critics made their statements broadly about the whole movie, as they argued that literally the entire thing was fabricated from nothing.

"Bergoglio did not in 2012 fly to Italy to meet with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo to ask for permission to retire. The two men did not spend days together getting to know each other," wrote John Waters for First Things, a religious journal. "Pope Benedict did not give Cardinal Bergoglio advance knowledge of his intention to resign. He did not tell him that he regarded himself as no longer fit to be pope. He did not reveal that he had decided Bergoglio would be the perfect choice to replace him."

This accounts for most of the main events of the movie, suggesting that Waters and like-minded critics believe the whole story is fictitious. However, Waters did not offer citations to prove that the relationship between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis was fictional, instead seeking to discredit the the screenwriter himself.

The Two Popes was written by Anthony McCarten, and adapted from his 2017 stage-play The Pope. It was based on historical events, speeches and published philosophical debates. However, McCarten has been open about the fact that he wrote speculatively in interviews.

"What you always do is you speculate," he told The Wrap. "Hopefully that speculation is based in facts and the truth, and hopefully it's inspired."

The relationship and conversations between the two main characters may fall within the purview of speculation, but other events do not. Religious experts have identified two serious factual inaccuracies in the movie, which call the rest of the story into question.

The first is that Bergoglio did not travel to Rome to discuss his resignation, according to U.S. Catholic. The second — and more serious, according to Waters — is that it was Pope Benedict, not Pope Francis, who ordered Father Marcial Maciel to retire after learning that he was a serial pedophile.

Waters thought the movie implied that Benedict helped cover for Maciel, when in fact he forced him to leave the Legion of Christ. According to a report by The Guardian, Maciel allegedly sexually abused as many as 60 boys, as young as 12 years old.

Other issues have been raised with the movie, ranging from small to big. So far, McCarten has not so much defended himself from the criticism as repeatedly described his writing process, identifying what he learned from research and what he made up to fill in the gaps.

"Having been raised Catholic in quite an intensely Catholic family, I knew about that Pope," he said on The Big Ticket podcast.

"I did enough research to know what the stated positions of each character was and their idiosyncrasies and how they were. But they had delivered these statements and proclamations and so forth in separate rooms. So this is where I got involved and got excited was that I opened doors and got them into the same room and contrived a conversation, a debate between them," he said.

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Some have argued that the outrage about inaccuracies in the movie should be over the "based on true events card," and not McCarten's screenplay itself.

The Two Popes is streaming now on Netflix.