PHOTOGRAPHY BY SUSAN WRIGHT
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes (in theaters now and on Netflix December 20) covers the sometimes uneasy relationship between the last two pontiffs, the traditionalist Benedict XVI and the progressive Francis. To fully capture their rival approaches, the Oscar nominee essentially made two films. One, set mostly in Buenos Aires and featuring the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is organic, visceral, and spontaneous. The other, in the Vatican of Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins), is orderly, serene, and polished.
Meirelles wasn’t allowed to film within the Vatican walls, but in Italy, as he puts it, “It’s not difficult to find lots of options for anything you need.” He and production designer Mark Tildesley toured the country, assembling “an amazing patchwork” of rooms and gardens from the Royal Palace of Caserta near Naples, the town of Castel Gandolfo (the home of the pope’s summer residence), the former papal retreat of Villa Mondragone, and Caprarola’s Villa Farnese (pictured). In this early scene, the two men share a tea—and a contentious policy debate—in what is supposed to be the gardens of Castel Gandolfo but is actually the Casino, a summer residence in the Villa Farnese’s gardens that once housed Italy’s first president.
On occasions when the crew couldn’t find a stand-in, the filmmakers got creative: For one pivotal scene, Tildesley used a process akin to temporary tattooing to re-create the Sistine Chapel at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. “It wasn’t exactly a replica,” Meirelles admits. “Our set was five centimeters longer, so we had the biggest Sistine Chapel in the world.”
For Meirelles, who studied architecture in college, the biggest challenge was resisting the temptation to fill every shot with beautiful frescoes and statues. “I wanted to make it very intimate,” he says. “I wasn’t shooting two popes; I was shooting two friends, two neighbors who don’t like each other.”
These small, quiet moments had a surprising impact on the director, who has called himself “a very bad Catholic.” “In Argentina, I remember seeing a teenager praying in a little chapel linked to the church where we were shooting,” he says. “It was so intimate, meditative, and profound. After that, I started paying more attention to people saying they feel the presence of God. I know there’s something bigger than our everyday life—but in some way, this film helped me feel that.”