On March 13th, 2013, there was no hint of anticipation in Buenos Aires. It was the first mild afternoon since early summer, an ordinary Wednesday in the Argentine capital. The Vatican announcement pointing Jorge Bergoglio, at the time Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the new Pope took even the Argentine press correspondents in Rome by surprise. On television, presenters improvised as best they could to break the news.
I remember calling a cameraman from a large Buenos Aires-based foreign television channel who was unaware that the Pope was now an Argentine. He seemed to be stunned. “Where are we going?” He asked me. “To the Cathedral,” I answered.
If in Buenos Aires it was mid-afternoon, in Rome, the clock ticked at 8:14 pm when French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran revealed who would take the highest post of the Catholic Church, following the resignation of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, who was engulfed in a series of scandals. At the time, the official explanation of the Church was that Benedict XVI had left the post for health reasons.
This is one of the controversies behind the film The Two Popes, original Netflix production, directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, which premiered last Friday (20) on the platform, just weeks after the theatrical screening.
What was left out of the film is the fact that, on the occasion, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner took more than an hour to release some kind of statement congratulating Bergoglio. After strong insistence from the world press, including mine, she issued a statement, wishing that he had a “fruitful pastoral task.”
Later, during an event, Cristina wished only “good luck” to the new Pope, but never mentioned the name “Bergoglio”. The newspapers emphasized the relation of the chosen one with the Peronist government, calling Bergoglio “political disaffection”, “opponent”, etc.
Following the death of Néstor Kirchner in 2010, whose mass was held by Bergoglio, relations with the Kirchner family have softened. Conflict remained over issues the cardinal opposed, such as legalizing same-sex marriage and changing transgender documents. I remember that Bergoglio even published an open letter urging people to take to the streets to prevent such changes from being approved in Congress.
That day in the Argentine capital, both protests and celebrations began only at the end of the day, hours after the announcement, with hundreds of catholic believers in front of the Buenos Aires Cathedral. A few meters away, at Casa Rosada, protesters repudiated the news. This dichotomy is softened by Meirelles in the film, as well as the reason for this division between the Argentines: Bergoglio’s supposed connivance with the Argentine dictatorship.
The day after the Vatican’s announcement, March 14th, 2013, the traditionally left-wing newspaper Pagina 12 (Page 12) printed on its cover the expression “My God!”, an allusion to the astonishment caused by Bergoglio’s appointment. In the same issue, a lengthy editorial by the writer and journalist Horacio Verbitsky, also author of the book El silencio, de Paulo VI a Bergoglio: Las relaciones secretas de la Iglesia con la ESMA* (something like ‘The silence, from Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relationships of the Church with ESMA’–the Spanish acronym for the Argentine military academy).
“I am not a consensus in Argentina,” says Bergoglio in the film. This phrase intrigued me because the truth is that, after energetic manifestations, little was said about the subject in Argentina. Shortly thereafter Bergoglio’s appointment as Pope, Cristina even went to see him at the Vatican, and so did Mauricio Macri and the newly elected president of Argentina Alberto Fernández after her.
The chat between the popes
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983) was at the heart of the country’s lack of consensus on that Wednesday. In the movie, Bergoglio’s position as head of the Jesuits during the regime, and his proximity to the leaders of the military junta such as Emilio Eduardo Massera and Jorge Videla, is one of the highlights of the long dialogue between Jorge Bergoglio and Ratzinger in the Sistine Chapel. This dialogue, in which the two confess their pain and guilt, is also used by Meirelles as a narrative tool. In the film, Bergoglio had allegedly gone to Rome to ask Benedict XVI to retire because he did not believe in the path the Church was taking. This is the beginning of the dialogue between the two priests.
However, according to specialized publications, although the film presents itself as “based on real facts”, the actual encounters between the two Popes would not have happened as shown in the production.
According to these publications, Bergoglio would not have actively participated in Benedict XVI’s decision to resign, although he met him in Rome on different occasions. This dialogue, therefore, is a narrative poetic license of Meirelles, based on Anthony McCarten‘s book, the New Zealander writer nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for his screenplay for The Theory of Everything, the movie about the physicist Stephen Hawkins.
With memorable interpretations of Anthony Hopkins, playing Ratzinger, and Jonathan Price, as Bergoglio, the biography of the Argentine Pope is little by little unraveled by the film. From his passion for soccer to the his call to celibacy; from his posture during the dictatorship to a kind of church-imposed punishment that led him to a small parish in Cordoba for six years, where he allegedly martyred for his role during the dictatorship.
In his youth, in Argentina, Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujín, who became famous as the main character of the first season of the Argentine series El Marginal, also broadcast by Netflix. It is Minujín who tells the most controversial episode of Bergoglio’s life: the role he played or not in the arrests of priests Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, both kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured for five months during the Argentine military dictatorship.
The film shows a contrite Bergoglio, repentant of his attitudes in the military period, and also ignorant of the regime’s crimes. But it also shows its austerity and charisma, as well as its commitment to the poor. The same is not true, in the same proportion, in the narrative about Benedict VXI, which takes a back seat, albeit important and highlighted by Hopkins’ impeccable performance.
Reading Verbitsky’s editorial today–which I kept because I have a habit of keeping newspapers of historical dates–I find myself gaping. How far is it from the vision we have of the Pope today and, apparently, his vision of himself, if we consider Meirelles’s film!
In the text, Verbitsky highlights a dialogue with Orlando Yorio’s sister Graciela Yorio among hundreds of calls he received when Bergoglio was elected Pope. Here is a transcript part of it:
“I can not believe. I am so upset and so angry that I don’t know what to do. He got what he wanted. I see Orlando in the dining room at home for a few years ago saying, ‘he wants to be Pope’. It is the right person to cover the rot. He is the cover-up expert. My phone does not stop ringing, Fito talked to me crying ”, Verbitsky narrates. ‘Fito’ is Adolfo Yorio, another brother from Orlando, the priest who died in 2000, supporting the version that Bergoglio handed him over to the militaries.
The title of the editorial also catches the eye. In it Verbitsky uses the German word ersatz, which among various definitions means substitute of inferior quality–probably an allegory used by the writer to say that Bergoglio was not very different from Benedict XVI, whose relations with Nazism were never fully clarified. The word may also have been used to imply that, like Bergoglio, Benedict also had something to hide, in this case he may have resigned for allegedly covering up the scandals about the sexual abuse of minors by priests.
To this day there is a question feared by many in Argentina. “Where were you between 1976 and 1983, period of the military regime?” Many will say that they did not know of the terrors that occurred in the dictatorship’s basements or that they were just following orders. Others claim they did what they could to survive and take care of their own. This is the case of Bergoglio, according to Meirelles’s view and the Bergoglio’s character in the film. Of the two Oscars Argentina has, one went to the film La historia oficial (The Official History), which tells how civilians lived this period.
Another important observation is that Francisco Jalics, the other priest that was tortured by the dictatorship and is mentioned in the film, holds an opposite opinion to that of Yorio. He considers the allegations that Bergoglio handed him over to the dictatorship as unfounded. In a statement in 2013, a week after the announcement of Bergoglio’s rise to the Papacy, Jalics said he considered the case “closed”.
“At some point I was inclined to believe that we were the victims of a complaint,” he said. “In the late 1990s, after countless conversations, it became clear to me that this suspicion was unfounded. It is therefore a mistake to say that our arrest was at the initiative of Father Bergoglio.” This was Jalics’ first and only written statement on the subject. Today he lives in a monastery in Bavaria.
As I write, a butterfly that lands on my window reminds me of another allegory Meirelles uses in the film to excuse Bergoglio of alleged responsibilities he may or may not have had under military rule.
In the movie, some lines are used to raise the idea of change, mutation, transformation and evolution of the human being. He is not a static being, changes over time. This is used to explain why, tacitly, a conservative cardinal may have turned into one of the most beloved popes in modern history.
Although it premiered a few days ago, expert critics say Meirelles’s film has everything to become one of Netflix’s hits of the year.
It is interesting to see how the film raises the white smoke of Bergoglio, it is worth following how the critique will behave in Argentina. The film does not sow doubts, but the Pope knows that there is a haze he left in Buenos Aires.
*ESMA – Refers to the Armada Mechanics School, formerly the Armada Mechanics School – ESMA, located in the Nuñez neighborhood of Buenos Aires. During the military dictatorship, it became the largest detention and torture center of the Argentine military repression, where supposedly were more than 5,000 prisoners, many missing to this day.
Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes