Two Popes: The Epidemic of Bad Screenwriting

Two old guys sitting in dresses talking about God. This is, word for word, how Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of last year’s Oscar-nominated Two Popes, described his film that retells in a fictionalized way the relationship between Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis. And perhaps the problem starts here. At this very shallow and nauseatingly vague and hip (because, let’s face it, how can you otherwise sell this movie to younger audiences?) premise. Amidst the on-going Coronavirus, there is another epidemic that is currently working its way into Hollywood. Its symptoms can be found in Two Popes. Bad screenwriting is nothing new. Like in any other art form there are those who are better at it and those who still have some catching up to do. However, we live in a time where bad screenwriting is being actively rewarded, both critically and financially. And Fernando Meirelles’ Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten, is the prime example of a product that is being sold to masses, neatly wrapped in gift wrap by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, despite some serious flaws that should not go unnoticed.

On the surface, Two Popes is just that: a fictionalized retelling of conversations held between Pope Benedict, here labelled as the conservative, and future Pope Francis, here labelled as the progressive of the two. The film follows the two men of God as they clash with their beliefs. One argues that God never changes. The other one says the opposite. One fails to see the point in watching a football game. The other one is a fanatic of the sport. And so on, and so on. Rinse and repeat. There is nothing wrong with what I just described and the movie does a fairly good job of establishing the two clashing personalities in the opening half hour.
Pope Francis, here still called by his last name, Bergoglio, is the man of the people. A humble preacher who dresses like the villagers he blesses on a casual Sunday morning in some God-forsaken little Argentinian town. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, values comfort and fashion, and spends most of his time in his holiday mansion by the lake. This rather obvious distinction between the two is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten wants us to recognize before we dive into their relationship once they meet to discuss their differences and the eventual resignation on the part of Pope Benedict. And here is where the problems start.

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The two popes sharing a pizza.

McCarten has a history of screenwriting ”indifference” with a resume that includes The Theory of EverythingThe Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. All of his films are based on real people, all of his films have granted each leading man an Oscar (Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman for Winston Churchill and Rami Malek for Freddie Mercury) and all of his films assume the same attitude in the face of clashing personalities, beliefs and agendas – indifference.
Here is the man who turned Hawking’s life of struggle and adversity into a romantic dramedy without any real understanding of his relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking. Here is the man who failed to add any clarity or complexity to Churchill’s decision-making in the so-called darkest hour. Here is the man who instead of capturing the vitality and creativity of one of history’s greatest rockstars went for the most obvious, formulaic rise-and-fall scenario. Having said this, Two Popes had a real chance of being made into something fresh and unique. The supposed meetings between the two clergymen never really took place. Pope Benedict and Francis met only briefly on three occasions and their conversations had not been recorded or transcribed in any form.
This uncharted territory presented many interesting opportunities for a capable screenwriter. After all, the Catholic Church has been at the heart of most modern discussion panels; its existence, its benefits and threats. And under Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church suffered greatly in terms of image: sex scandals, investigations, tabloid headlines, you name it. This had potential. If handled well enough, a movie like Two Popes could have sparked these debates even further and put more question marks to an already muddled landscape of current affairs.
Instead, Two Popes comes off as an innocent, feel-good comedy with flashes of drama (mostly revolving around Bergoglio’s past during Argentina’s dark years of dictatorship), something you’d watch with your parents in-between binge-watching sessions of Sex Education and Narcos.

Saved by two miraculous performances in Hopkins and Pryce as Benedict and Francis, respectively, Two Popes drives toward an inevitably predictable conclusion in cruise control. As previously mentioned, the opening conversations revolving around the differences in appearance between the two men (one loves to dance tango and sing Abba songs, the other prefers to play piano and watch German cop shows, and so on, and so on, ad nauseam…) are fine and pose an interesting premise. Where will it lead to? How will these differences impact their beliefs? And more importantly, when will it all culminate? When will they talk about real important matters?
McCarten’s screenplay seems to navigate from present day to flashbacks of Argentina in the 70s in order to escape these pressing questions. When there is a difficult dilemma at hand, McCarten chooses to by-pass it with a smart remark or a joke. Keep the tone light. Make it cheerful. The flashbacks relating to questionable decisions made by a young Bergoglio who, when pressured by the authorities and accused of siding with Communists during Argentina’s Dirty War, became subject of allegations regarding the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, fail to explore the moral ambiguity and religious identity of Francis. Thus, the flashbacks start and end without a sense of purpose or urgency. Their implications and consequences are not meant to be studied and explored, but used as mere exposition.
And that’s my main issue with bad screenwriting in general. Exposition is too often used to mask a lack of imagination. The more you tell directly to your audience, the more you hope they will feel engaged by the material presented to them. In Hollywood, this is happening more and more often, especially when dealing with real life characters. Think of The Post, Hidden Figures, or even the glorified snooze-fest, also known as Lincoln. Screenwriters seem to be afraid to play around with history, and McCarten in particular seems to be terrified of provoking the audience through his own beliefs as a writer. The result is a work that is deprived of any belief at all. What we get is a trite confrontation between conservative and progressive and we, as an audience, are stuck in the middle. We are the so-called centrists, afraid to join one side over the other, indifferent to the decisions being made right in front of us.

There is an alarming lack of symbolism in Two Popes, which is quite surprising considering most films dealing with the theme of religion are often entirely grounded in symbolism, and yet this is another screenwriting path that McCarten is afraid to take. Perhaps because symbolism, again, relates to assuming a specific attitude toward a subject matter. As a writer you use symbols, metaphors and the like to voice unspoken truths on paper. To avoid addressing directly the issue at hand. Symbolism is like making a puzzle: the end result can be enormously satisfying but the process demands great attention and focus, something that McCarten has not been willing to utilize in his movies.
Similarly to The Darkest Hour, where Churchill walks through his most pressing moment as a world leader as if it was a walk in the park, calling upon the same old tired motifs of patriotism, masculinity and sacrifice in the face of adversity, Two Popes deal with the subject of religion and the Church as if they were discussing their favorite movies or books. There is hardly any room for controversy and real, hard debate.

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The Darkest Hour, also written by McCarten, limits itself to a safe and cartoonish depiction of Churchill.

In writing this post, I do not wish to discredit McCarten as a screenwriter. My intent is to direct some criticism toward a system that actively rewards indifference when it comes to issues of fairly great importance. Movies like Two Popes should not be something you walk out of smiling and saying to yourself ”Those two are some funny popes,” just like like The Darkest Hour should not be something you digest the same way you digest an episode of Friends. History is to be honored, yes. But that does not mean it cannot be turned into something thought provoking and engaging. Through this epidemic of indifferent screenwriting, we have seen countless films that move the same way. Talk the same way. And preach about the same things. The Theory of Everything is not all that different from Bohemian Rhapsody. The same way Imitation Game is not all that different from The Danish Girl. Or The Post and Lincoln. Trumbo and Hidden Figures. And thus, these stories become mere products that end up on your Netflix watchlist, never to be seen again. Is that what cinema is about? More importantly, is that what history is really about? Turning the page and moving on? If it all starts from pen and paper, then screenwriters like McCarten should be held to a higher standard.

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Should we really cheer for them?

The Last Faithful One

74.  74 is the age of the little fellow with the big glasses known also as Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors of all time, and probably my favorite one.  74 years of age and he still comes out guns blazing right this second with a three hour epic on Christianity, doubt and above all, the importance of faith.  The movie carries the the following title – Silence – just like its source novel written by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese writer whose book influenced Scorsese to make the picture already back in 1989. 28 years of waiting. 28 years of constant fighting for a project that surely won’t have any commercial success. 28 years of faith.

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The man, the myth, the legend.

The story is that of two Christian missionaries from Portugal traveling to Japan in the 17th century in order to find out what happened with their guide and mentor, Padre Ferrera, a priest who went missing seven years before the actual story takes place, and who apparently apostatized after having been tortured.  Christianity at the time was outlawed by the Japanese officials and anybody who refused to accept Buddhism as their religion ended up being tortured and eventually, killed. Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, never better, seriously) and Padre Garrpe (Adam Driver, brilliant as always) are young, inexperienced and naive, but they believe in one thing – their endless love for God.  As they arrive in Japan,not too far from Nagasaki, they find a small Christian community made up of loyal peasants who devote their lives, risking them every single day, to God.  It is there and then that the two priests realize how dangerous their presence is in that region of the world.  With each breath they take, which each baptism they organize and with each blessing they give, the authorities get closer and closer to the source of this ‘evil’ religion.  It is odd to put it like this, but Endo’s religious tale is like a great coming of age story and Scorsese’s film feels more like a video essay on a subject he is so passionate about rather than just a generic historical drama.

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the struggle of one man is the struggle of all.

This is the difference between a real artist and someone who just happened to pick up a camera.  In every frame of Silence there is belief, originality and calculation.  Like in his less popular works, such as KundunThe Age of Innocence or one of my personal favorites, The Last Temptation of Christ, the director approaches each shot with the eye of a visual scientist and born storyteller.  In this case, the film feels like his most personal one to date. Perhaps it’s because the entire project had been held up for 28 years, or perhaps because Scorsese himself wanted to become a priest at some point in his life and religion had often been an underlying theme in his movies. Also, it has that tender feel like the earlier Scorsese pictures used to have. Why? Well, after six years of digital the director decided to go back to shooting on film, almost as if he wanted himself to go back in time, to his days of youth, madness, drugs and spirituality. It all adds up to a composed and organized presentation of a story that in other hands might have been mishandled and chewed up. Notice the use of steady shots, and even during movement, Scorsese’s camera (operated by Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer of Scorsese’s previous movie, The Wolf of Wall Street) tracks step by step, extremely slow and composed. It is perhaps the director’s aim to make us suffer too, because for those of you who want to go and see this film, brace yourselves for quite a few scenes of extreme torture.  Don’t get me wrong.  Again, Scorsese’s violence in this movie is unflinching but it is more psychological rather than physical (graphic).  The pain comes from the inner conflict of the two priests, and mainly Rodrigues, who has to watch his devoted Japanese followers die in the name of God, tied to a cross and forced into the sea or burned alive on a stake, screaming in agony, or worse, keeping silent through all of it.  When Rodrigues kneels down praying, he begins whispering words of prayer, which quickly become meaningless to him, as he notices that whether or not he asks God to come down and help these poor, innocent creatures, God will remain silent.  He is put to the test and ordered to renounce his God. If he does not obey more people will die because of his arrogance and pride.  At some point Ferrera (Liam Neeson) says “Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in the same cell. And I acted.”   Silence is the source of inner conflict not only for Rodrigues but also for Kichijiro, Rodrigues’ Japanese guide who keeps betraying him and asking for forgiveness like a wandering, lost child.  Kichijiro represents the common mortal sinner who keeps going back to his old habits, hoping for a miracle to come and save him from himself. Silence is also the source of inner conflict for the viewer, at least that is how I felt about it.  Scorsese has built an epic that will cut deep into your heart because he knows how powerful cinema can be.  A story of the faith of one man, one priest, can soon enough turn out to be the story of one nation, one world.   Two hours and forty one minutes go by and at end of it you truly feel speechless because in some way or another, you have taken part in a cinematic confession.  It is my belief that Scorsese has made this movie in order to tell his own experience with religion, his own experience with the hostile world of success and critical failure he’s had over the last few decades. Like Padre Ferrera, he too had renounced certain values he believed in when he was a young man with already a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt. He too, like those three priests and those Japanese peasants, came from nothing and had to sacrifice a whole lot to become the man he is today.  That is how a master works – with some of the best acting of the year (Adam Driver steals every scene he is in, Garfield carries the film all the way through and Neeson adds humanity and understanding to a painful ending), glorious cinematography that captures not only the grim and foggy landscapes (filmed in Taiwan) but above all, the faces of the poor, the rich, the tortured and the privileged, and last but not least the direction of a true professional and the editing done by a long time friend (Thelma Schoonmaker, still the best in the business), Scorsese makes you think about yourself. Re-evaluate yourself. He makes you question your identity, your beliefs, your motivations.  For him, silence is everywhere and it is the only sound there is in the whole wide world. But perhaps, it’s us who create it. Perhaps…

Just perhaps…

 

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Who are we, really?

Greyhounds and Priests

Holy. What is holy? Is it the opposite of sinful? Is there a difference? Can you see the line that divides these two words? That sets them apart? Those are questions brought up in a movie that hit me hard last night. I was expecting a punch in the gut but not such a powerful one. To tell the truth, I had no idea what to expect; i knew just the title – The Club (2015), a Chilean masterwork directed by the up and coming Pablo Larraín (director of No (2012)). You might wonder, did I come up with any answers after having watched the movie? No, instead I came up with more questions. You see, the movie is all about Greyhounds and priests.

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Welcome to the club.

There is an isolated house on top of a hill of an isolated town by the sea in Chile. It’s yellow, pleasant to look at, it even has a garden and a beautiful view of the coast. However, don’t let the appearances fool you. Inside this lovely house you’ll find four priests with four dark pasts. Taking care of them is a retired middle aged nun. She also hides something. You think you’re entering the house of God, instead you’re entering the house of Satan. Father Garcia is our key to this terrifying place. He’s sent there to shut the whole place down after having gathered all the necessary evidence to send these priests to jail. The secrets that are about to torment Garcia, are also there to torment us. Father Lazcano was sent there to find peace within himself. Soon enough he falls dead with a gunshot wound to the head. Suicide. How about that? Garcia, however, is there to hunt down these four disgraced priests and the nun that is responsible for them. As he unravels the priests’ stories we begin to learn not only about them, but also about the bigger picture. Religion. Faith. Sin. Forgiveness.

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Larrain’s direction is ruthless. Filthy characters looking directly at the camera, opening themselves to us, the audience. Are they judging us? Pauses. Silences. Vivid descriptions of child molestation, anal sex, intimate confessions and pure hatred for the human kind. These priests all represent a unity. They carry their own stories and their own sins with them. Each one of them is different and Larrain highlights this fact by isolating them. The director’s framing of the images feel a lot like Antonioni’s in L’Avventura. Hell, the setting is not so different. Rocks. Sand. Fog. Rain. The camera pans across an extremely dimly lit landscape. There ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, right? Yes, there is no faith to be found here. You can only contemplate the scary absence of it, because believe me; a world with no faith, no hope for a better tomorrow, no certainty for anything, is extremely scary. In fact, the priests’ only satisfaction, only remaining joy in life is betting. Betting on Greyhounds in dog racing. Instead of faith, they make money. Money that for them is absolutely worthless. Money that can’t bring the dead back to life. Money that can’t make up for their mistakes. And once they lose the possibility of betting too? What happens then? Larrain pushes us and the priests to the extreme. It would be too easy to pin down one main theme for this movie. You’d think, “oh sure, he’s talking about how the past haunts you.” No. He’s not. He’s going for something much more complex than that. The past plays just a supporting role. It’s the present that has the spotlight on this grim, menacing stage. Is the present our only judge? The priests stumble at each step, the weight on their shoulders is getting heavier and heavier. These are not men, they aren’t human anymore. They’re beasts. They’re shadows, ghosts. Ghosts that go through every day life just like they go through a religious ritual. There is nothing holy about them. There is nothing holy about what they used to represent when they were young.

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Suffocating the dark past.

You might wonder, then, why am I bringing up this movie all of a sudden? There are countless movies that touch upon similar subjects, for instance Doubt, Changeling, Spotlight, Sleepers and many, many others. However, this movie might be still the most riveting one among them. Why? Because it’s extremely quiet. There is a subtle vibration in every frame of it. We hear the waves crash against the rocky coast. We hear the homeless dogs howl in the streets. We hear the wind blow over the hill. Aside from that, there are no fireworks. Each gesture is twice as relevant because of the all around quiet and peace. Each word and each scream, each manifestation of anger or desperation is ten times as powerful because of the setting. Because of this silent stage, where the actors have nothing but each other. Their fate is in their hands. And maybe that’s the scariest part about it; these sinners, these monsters are their own judges. What good might come out of it?

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Greyhounds and priests.

 

 

 

The Man Behind The Myth

Today’s topic, which I’ve had in mind for a very long time, and to be quite frank I never thought I’d share, is the immense love I have for Martin Scorsese, the man responsible for such diverse works such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Aviator, The Departed and lately The Wolf of Wall Street. His riveting direction, mind blowing editing and immaculate soundtrack choices hail him as one of the greatest storytellers of cinematic history. On the other hand, what I’ve always meant to do, is try and look back at Scorsese as a child, a private man with a big heart, born and raised like every other Italian-American “paisa”.

Scorsese, let’s keep in mind, was a boy raised in Little Italy when the neighbourhood was “infected” by local hoods, wise guys who walked around, respected and feared, always out there doing dirty deals and living the life of crime to the fullest. However, as the director himself often has said, it all added flavour to a young boy’s life. Kids in those times didn’t have internet, smartphones and all those spoiled needs they have today. What they had was their gift of imagination, the street and most importantly, the church.

Aside from the obvious gift of imagination I mentioned, let’s talk about the street. First off, seeing a guy’s brains splattered all over the sidewalk or witnessing the beat-up of your uncle at the age of eight is not something we forget that easily. Scorsese’s uncle would be often in trouble with the local gangsters, owing money here and there, and would put the director’s father in a tight position. The filmmaker, a born asthmatic, would often stay at home, his mum would keep him safe, have him covered with a blanket, and the boy would  do what he’s always been best at: observe. Look out the window and study the everyday life in the Italian neighbourhood: kids running across the street; music emanating from a local bar; people yelling at each other from one window to another; hoods having a brawl in the corner of a dark alley; a sunday procession. A young child has the eyes of a hawk and registers all these events with great ease. The street would not only be a rough environment for young Scorsese but also a school outside the actual school. A school of practice, street values, pain and also happiness. A school that taught simple yet very mature subjects. It could swallow you but also spit you right back up. It could ruin you but also help you become someone. However, things would get nasty, and sometimes, the street would be too dangerous; sometimes there  would be too many bodies lying on the sidewalk; sometimes the blood would be too red. That’s when the church stepped in.

The church. Children who didn’t end up in gangs and didn’t join the life of petty crime would go looking for reason, solace and peace in the holy institution. Scorsese was one of these “unlucky” kids. He never became bully or thief because of his illness. That’s when the church welcomed him. It welcomed him with open arms. Yes, it did. Up to the point that the now-director was supposed to become a priest. Priesthood was his true calling he thought. But then again, the world of movies just sucks you right in.

Scorsese was shaped as an individual and as artist by painful mistakes and regrettable moments as much as by his family’s immense love, his dear friends’ appreciation and the passion that sizzled inside of him since a very young age. Today he’s 72, going for 73, and he’s still the same boy from Little Italy. A man with a lot to say and a lot to show. A man who doesn’t need awards nor publicity. A man who loves to learn just as much as he loves to teach.

“My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it.”  The filmmaker has always mentioned movies and religion as his main reasons for living the life he lives. And that’s what makes Scorsese the great director he is today. He is a humble man, raised in a tough spot, with no wealth, no shiny objects around him. Simplicity. That’s what he wakes up to everyday.

The man behind films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas and many more is the true representation of a simple man behind a camera.
The man behind films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and many more is the true example of a simple, talented mind behind a camera.