On Pope as the prince of paupers

Updated: Dec 25, 2019, 05:09 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Also checked with the Brazilian genius Fernando Meirelles if he knows how Bollywood digs his 2002 masterpiece, City Of God

A still from Netflix's The Two Popes, which has picked up four top nominations at the Golden Globes this year. Pic/ Instagram
A still from Netflix's The Two Popes, which has picked up four top nominations at the Golden Globes this year. Pic/ Instagram

MayankOh, really… That's huge," says Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, when I ask if he knows that the poster behind the desk of Bollywood's biggest producer, Yashraj Studios' boss Aditya Chopra, is that of his gritty gem, set in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, City Of God (2002).

Although Meirelles hasn't heard of Chopra, let alone seen his directorial debut Dilwale Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) or Yashraj's other works, to be able to appreciate the irony/surprise at a City Of God poster on Chopra's wall, he did meet an Indian filmmaker while in Mumbai, who said he had made a series inspired by the same film.

That gentleman was show-runner Vikramaditya Motwane. The show he was referring to was, of course, Sacred Games, on Netflix. Mareilles' latest film, The Two Popes, a biographical drama, also dropped on Netflix this week. And while The Two Popes is all about sanctity, sacredness, religion, and authority, it is farthest away from City Of God, or indeed its admitted inspiration, Sacred Games.

It's about two individuals — Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins), and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). They're having a conversation — a debate, as it were, about very essential things they disagree with each other on. The three-camera set-up seems rudimentarily documentary-like.

For the most part, the film seemed to me along the lines of Istvan Szabo's masterpiece Taking Sides (2001), set in post-War Germany, with the US Army Major (Hervey Keitel) interrogating a musical conductor (Stellan Skarsgard); and the film, also a biopic, making nuanced arguments on the place of art and politics in history/society.

Hopkins, killing it as the frail Pope Benedict, is deeply conservative at heart. Pryce, subtle to the core, as Bergoglio (later to take over as Pope Francis), is his boss's social anti-thesis. At the centre of this true story is the Catholic Church, or its future/present as both envision it. And yet, if you zoom out a little, what you get/see is a very humanistic document on the role and contemporary relevance of religion itself.

"The original script (by Anthony McCarten) had a lot of people praying, and religion in it," Meirelles says — something he got rid of to reveal a more "spiritual side [to the story], rather than religious in a Catholic way." What attracted Meirelles to The Two Popes was one of them — that is, the progressive Pope Francis, whose general worldview — whether on universal brotherhood, or environmental concerns — he wholly agrees with.

Also, the film works at a "personal level — where two men who disagree to the point that they almost hate each other, find common ground." And, at the "political level, with (Pope Francis') strong criticisms of [global] economic systems."

Couldn't agree more. Especially loved that laconic exchange, where Pope Benedict says, "All dictatorships take away our freedom to choose…" "Or reveal our weaknesses," Pope Francis cuts in, since he's had a history with Argentinean authoritarianism in the '70s, when he had to make a choice between protecting Jesuit priests under his order, and/or following orders of the government of the day.

This is the part of the film where Meirelles' genius as a filmmaker shows up as he cuts away from interior Benedict-Francis sequences, into the bedlam in Buenos Aires in the late '70s with an eight-year-old military rule in the Latin American country Pope Francis is from. This isn't to suggest the Vatican portions of the film are anything but stunning, to say the least.

The Two Popes has rightly picked up four top nominations at the Golden Globes this year. Besides such an intimate story, what the film reveals is Mereilles' strong knack for drawing out characters, situating them in a solid filmic space, and letting the two interact organically, with audiences wholly immersed in the world they've been sucked into.

In a completely different way, that's what Meirelles did with casting non-professional actors from favelas (slums in Brazil) to throw you into a guttural arm-pit called City Of God (an actual neighbourhood) that you found hard to emerge from eventually.

Such a world can so easily be adapted in India, and Bombay, for sure. How's Mumbai different from Rio, I ask Meirelles. "Mumbai is more intense, bigger, louder, colourful," he says. But more importantly, Meirelles observes, "Mumbai doesn't really look into the sea. The sea seems like it's in its backyard [unlike Rio]."

It's a sharp point, somehow lost on filmmakers making the predictably 'Bombay film' — with the standard shot of Marine Drive, if you may. The only quintessentially Bombay film without a single shot of the sea I know is Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy (2019), starring Ranveer Singh as Murad in the lead, and Vijay Verma as the protagonist's 'brother from another mother', Moin. Guess what Singh offered Verma as the precious tip to play Moin: "Bhai, City of God!" He pointed him to the character Li'l Zé from Meirelles' film.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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