Directed by Fernando Meirelles, ‘The Two Popes’ is written Anthony McCarten, of ‘The Darkest Hour‘ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ fame, based on McCarten’s 2017 play, titled, ‘The Pope’. The film is a biographical drama centring on a series of conversations between Pope Benedict XVI, who took the unconventional decision to resign, and his successor, Pope Francis, as they try to reach a common ground, despite their differences.
The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict, while Jonathan Pryce plays Pope Francis. ‘The Two Popes‘ is inspired by true events and revolves around the intimate interactions between the popes behind Vatican walls as they form a striking but unlikely friendship. These two vastly different individuals come together and confront their pasts, trying to find commonalities between tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, for the future of the Catholic Church.
Despite being about the conversations between the two popes, the film has spectacular visuals. It makes use of memorable imagery, transporting its viewers to the Vatican, inside the Sistine Chapel. Interestingly though, it was never really shot there as the entire chapel was actually recreated. Here’s everything we know about the locations used in the recreation of the the lives of the two popes, as well as the Vatican.
What makes the visuals of ‘The Two Popes’ so fascinating is the fact that they involved a massive amount of research as well as great time-consuming efforts, as the Catholic Church did not offer any help in the production. Cinematographer César Charlone does a splendid job with the visuals with the way he composes each scene, focusing on the two men engaging in deep and difficult conversations, while also capturing the stunning environment around them.
The film is shot primarily as either the conversations between the popes or the flashback scenes as the two confront their own pasts. It was shot in just over 48 days, primarily in Argentina and Rome. The principal photography started in Argentina by November 2017 and ended by April 2018. The two shoots were separated by a break of three and a half months because of Hopkin’s other commitments.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Most of the film’s flashback scenes were filmed in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires. It is also where the film shooting began on November 13, 2017. Buenos Aires is the capital city of Argentina and also its largest one. The choice of filming in Buenos Aires was due to its historical relevance to Pope Francis as it is his home city. Before becoming the Pope, he was the archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, and was born in the Flores neighbourhood in the city.
One of the first scenes that was filmed in Buenos Aires had Pryce delivering a homily in Spanish as Jorge Bergoglio. The crew explored the city through Pope Francis’ lens, and toured his childhood house along with his seminaries and parishes. Most of the scenes were shot on location in Buenos Aires while several others were shot in a set in Argentina. The team filmed flashback scenes at the exact spot where Jorge Bergoglio made the decision to enter the priesthood. Along with this, they also filmed in the village quarters where he served as a cardinal for several years, and was loved and respected by everyone.
All of the movie’s Vatican city scenes were filmed in Rome with the help of the team, particularly the efforts of production designer Mark Tildesley. It was because of him that the team was able to recreate the Sistine Chapel entirely from scratch which took them several weeks.
Tildesley knew that getting permission to shoot within the premises of the chapel would prove difficult. Instead, he reproduced the interiors of the massive and gorgeous building a soundstage in Rome’s Cinecittà studio. This included Michelangelo’s frescoes which took an immense amount of effort to recreate precisely as the team wanted everything to look authentic. One part of the chapel, the wall showing the Last Judgment was painted entirely by hand. In an interview with Architectural Digest, Tildesley stated: “It was a very fitting image, relating to our story … with the ascension of the good into heaven and the bad into hell.”
But hand painting all of Michelangelo’s renaissance art on the walls proved to be extremely time-consuming so the team came up with another way to recreate them – “We found a company that could apply a ‘tattoo’ of the Sistine Chapel on the plastered walls that we built. It was like putting up wallpaper.”, said Tildesley as he spoke of how the entire process took about 8 weeks but they managed to get the textures and colour right.
The crew of ‘The Two Popes’ also shot certain scenes in a refugee camp where Pryce was dressed as the pope, and was filmed talking to the camp’s inhabitant and eating with them. The movie was also filmed in the exterior of Casa Gandolfo, the summer residence used by Pope Benedict during his papacy. It served as the site where the two popes initially converse. But the interiors and gardens of the castle were filmed at two other palaces on the outskirts of Rome. Along with Rome and Argentina, certain scenes were also filmed in Spain and Uruguay.
In conclusion, the arresting visuals of ‘The Two Popes‘ and its stunning compositions all add to the appeal of film. Interestingly, Charlone’s cinematography for the film was also inspired by Michelangelo’s paintings for the film and he used a similar type of flat-light used by the painter especially in the scenes shot on the Sistine Chapel set. The work on the Sistine Chapel set was in itself a herculean feat, and it was all due to Tildesley and his team.
The end result is so strikingly similar to the actual chapel that I am sure you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. The choice to shoot on location, even if it was in studios adds to the sense of realism in the film as at the first glance it almost seems like a documentary. Meirelles’ work on the film reveals a sense of honesty and authenticity that makes the film and the very real (but fake) conversations between the two popes in it all the more drawing, all the more compelling.
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