THE TWO POPES and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY

Truth is one, but the sages speak of it by many names.

—The Rig Veda

The Two Popes, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, opens in 2005, with the election of Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) as Pope Benedict XVI, and closes in 2013 with the resignation of Ratzinger and the election of Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) as Pope Francis. Using a blend of archival footage and narrative designed to look like a documentary, Meirelles captures the energy and urgency of The Two Popes’ core debate: The intersection of change and compromise.

Meirelles stages these rhetorical tête-à-tête as dramatically as action. The progressive Bergoglio understands that the church has failed millions and wants to open the doors with apologies and admissions of guilt. Ratzinger, a conservative, also wants to apologize, but the sanctity of the church is first and foremost. He will do nothing to discredit her, even if that means turning a deaf ear toward a screaming reality.

Now consider 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s, starring Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley, the newly appointed priest of the K-12 school, St. Mary’s, and Ingrid Bergman as Mary Benedict, the school’s Sister Superior.

The Bells of St. Mary’s finds Benedict and O’Malley up against a deadline. St. Mary’s is to be condemned and sold to developer Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers—Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life), a man who plans to pave paradise and put up a parking lot for his sparkling-new office tower next door. But no one occupies Bogardus’ tower, nor does it appear that he built it for anyone other than himself. Benedict and O’Malley hatch a plan: Convince Bogardus to bequeath the building to St. Mary’s. Benedict, ever a woman of habit, turns to prayer. O’Malley, willing to descend into the particular, knows there are other ways to get what you need.

Much like The Two PopesThe Bells of St. Mary’s is an exercise in casuistry, the Jesuit practice of foregoing principles and treating problems on a case-by-case basis. Benedict, both the pope and the sister, use faith and prayer in all situations, even when they hit a wall. The Jesuit Bergoglio and O’Malley are more pliable with their sophistry. And more effective.

Cinema is an exercise in casuistry: A case-by-case, movie-by-movie exploration of truth and morals. But how best to present this discourse? As an iconoclast addressing the problem directly? Or as a smuggler walking a more circuitous path?

The best cinema blends both, synthesizing image and sound to address both the head and the heart. When it works, it achieves a spiritual component. And The Two Popes and The Bells of St. Mary’s work. Two conflicts, four players. They all seek a shared goal, but it is their willingness to defend their positions that make these films so beautifully Catholic.  

The Two Popes is available to stream on Netflix. A new 4K restoration of The Bells of St. Mary is available for purchase on Blu-ray from Olive Films. A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 27, No. 16, “Descend into the particulars.”