I would not usually think of Argentine tango in terms of the Roman Catholic papacy. But with the release of the new film, The Two Popes, the relationship is made clear, at least in the life of one of its two main characters.
A fictionalization of the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger, a German cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and his successor Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit who was made Pope Francis I in 2013, the film is a tour de force effort by its two main actors. Ratzinger is played by Anthony Hopkins with his usual detailed depth of gesture, speech, and feeling, while another accomplished British actor, Jonathan Pryce, plays Bergoglio in what looks to me to be a spot-on accurate look at Bergoglio’s personality. They become involved in a long personal struggle over the future of the Catholic Church during a time when that organization, as it still is now, is under justified fire for its inability to address long-term, self-inflicted problems. This “debate” is the reason to see the film, and it is riveting.
But, there is a second plot in it, in which a young Bergoglio makes his decision to become a priest, and the seasoned Jesuit Bergoglio is made to deal some years later with “The Dirty War.” This struggle resulted in the disappearance and murder of 30,000 Argentine citizens at the hands of that country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s.
As a young man, Bergoglio is something of a Buenos Aires bon-vivant who is an ardent tanguero. He is in love with a young woman, also a tanguera, and they attend a Buenos Aires milonga that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the famous dance halls in that city. At the same time, the young man is struggling to understand whether his calling to the priesthood is legitimate. That would of course require that he give up his relationship with the young woman. To her great disappointment, he does enter the Jesuit order, but not before we get to see the lovely ambiance of tango and its dancing (even by Bergoglio and his girlfriend themselves) during that remarkable time. (Incidentally, young Bergoglio is played by the superb Juan Minujin, a noted Argentine stage and film actor who is as porteño-looking a man as you can get.)
Just because he becomes pope does not mean that Cardinal Bergoglio loses his love of tango. Late in the film, he and Ratzinger have achieved a kind of rapprochement in their different views of what The Church should be. Ratzinger has always believed that The Church should not compromise any of its doctrines. Bergoglio is portrayed as a far more liberal force who has a realistic view of the feelings and behaviors of hundreds of millions of actual Catholics. The Church has refused to deal realistically with these behaviors, and he is the one person who can understand and bring about the changes needed.
The two men don’t necessarily agree at the end of the film, but there is profound respect between them. In a remarkable scene, after Ratzinger has stepped down as pope and Bergoglio has taken over the office, Bergoglio visits the former pope. As he is leaving, he asks Ratzinger if he knows anything about tango. Of course, Ratzinger does not, and Bergoglio proceeds to give him a quick lesson in the tango basic. They fumble. They don’t do well. Ratzinger is embarrassed. Bergoglio is amused. But it is the moment of actual friendship with which the story comes to its end.
This moment, too, is not to be missed.
Regarding the historical accuracy of the film itself, there are numerous moments in it that mis-portray to a degree the relationship between the two men. You can read about these in detail here. But the film itself tells a gripping story about opposing political ideals that clash memorably. The movie is directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, who co-directed the terrifying City of God.
The Two Popes is a stunner. Take it for what it is worth to you on any level. You’ll enjoy the tango.
Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, which takes place in Paris, will be published on April 15, 2020.