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THE POPE / FERNANDO MEIRELLES – DAY 2 / THE PLEASURE OF DIVING IN

04.12.2017

While the crew prepared to film the moment in which the young Bergoglio felt the call of God in the Basílica de Flores in Buenos Aires, I walked through the church looking for an interesting point of view that could have escaped our notice before. In a small side chapel, I saw a boy of 19 who was praying oblivious to our movements. He was as focused as if he were exchanging WhatsApp messages with a friend. What was this young fellow thinking to make him so consumed by his thoughts that he didn’t notice the cables, monitors and the crew around him? What connection is this? Is it something that comes from the outside in, or from the inside out, like an emotional phenomenon? I was touched by his focus.

I was born Catholic and went to mass every week until I was nine, studied in a high school with priests, and baptized my children, but the church has become something distant in my life. I didn’t go as far as becoming an atheist, but saying that I’m agnostic also doesn’t express it either. This film has affected me and has made me ask what I believe in after all in terms of what could be a more subtle life.

This is the beauty of this profession. You always need to dive deep into the universe that you’re entering, but no one dives in without being affected. The work of telling stories is not only what sustains me, but it’s also my life because it transforms me.

From the first screenplay in July 2016 to the one we’re filming, this screenplay has gone through six versions. The process of developing the story has involved some long live meetings in LA and London, as well as tens of Skype meetings and hundreds of emails with notes and replies between screenwriters, producers and Netflix. The process of developing the screenplay takes the longest time, but it’s one of the most pleasurable and is perhaps the most important in making a film. I read a few books about Francisco and just one about Benedict XVI. This was in addition to reading articles and essays, and watching documentaries, a few feature films and a series about the Vatican, the conclaves and the Argentinean dictatorship. I visited the places where he went, talked with people about the two popes, about the church, about faith, and even shook his hand in an event that they hold every Wednesday in Praça São Pedro. I dove in.

When I read the screenplay the first time, I saw a film about the meeting of two very intelligent people, whose differences in thinking gave the impression that it would be a bloody confrontation. Bento XVI represented the conservative church which believes that the church should teach and guide the world. On the other side of the ring was Cardinal Bergoglio, who believes in a church which sees and listens to the world. Since they have opposite personalities and Pope France wins 7 X 1 in charisma, in this first reading it was obvious that the Argentinean would be the hero and the German would be the villain. But no.

During my dive, I gradually understood that Benedict XVI is not as many paint him to be, an ex-Nazi soldier, supported by the conservative right of the United States, leading a church weighed down by financial and sexual abuse scandals. Under his 16 pieces of clothing that he brought back to the Vatican, he’s a simple man and one of the most important intellectuals of the century. So they say. In his books, which I haven’t read, he tries to understand faith – what’s going through the mind of that boy sitting in the chapel in Buenos Aires – as if he were a scientist, by reason. This is the work of theologians. Ratzinger didn’t want to be the pope. Those who know him say that he would have preferred to remain praying and writing in a small library in Frisinga, Germany, which is what he does today in the Vatican. Becoming pope is giving up one’s own life. Being a martyr. He ended up confronting this conundrum of putting the church back on its tracks, freeing it from the risk of someone from its reformist wing, like Bergoglio, coming to control it. He managed to do this for a while.

On the other hand before becoming pope, Bergoglio, to my surprise, was not this charismatic, charming figure that we know today, even though this is what led me to accept making this film. As head of the Jesuits in Argentina and later as Bishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for the serious expression on his face, few words, rare smiles and an authoritarian manner. “An unpleasant person,” summed up a Jesuit who lived with him. Bergoglio was hard on his seminarians; he was self-absorbed and reserved his smile just for a chosen few. But he washed clothes and cooked for everyone on the weekends, even though he was their superior. He always refused any privilege and was attentive to the needs of others. Even though this priest doesn’t like his ex-boss, he respects him for his correct conduct.

Gossip: During the conclave that elected him, a group of Jesuits who lived with him, were watching the event on TV. When Bergoglio came out on the balcony with his smile and soft voice: “-Buonasera sorelli e fratelli…”  Everyone was shocked. “- Buonasera?” That sweet man who spoke to thousands of people in Praça São Pedro and to a billion of the faithful, wasn’t the cardinal that they knew so well. “Who was that person?,” they asked themselves.

The same impression is shared by almost everyone who lived with Bergoglio in Buenos Aires with whom I had the chance to talk. The fact is this man has changed a lot. Intrigued, I always ask those who know him, when and why this change took place. One of his colleagues, also a Jesuit, gave me the best answer so far: “Since I am a man of faith, I believe that, at the exact moment of his election, the Holy Spirit provoked this transformation.

For the film, the difference between the perception we have of the Pope turned into a big problem. The screenplay was written imagining a person very similar to what we see in the media, and he wasn’t like that. The penny dropped: films about living figures can be polemic. What to do?

It was a tough decision, but I opted to create a dryer, more annoying Bergoglio, of few words and no smiles, mainly during the period during which he was the head of the order. On the other hand, I saw that I couldn’t leave his transformation in the hands of the Holy Spirit, because the conclave scene, when the Holy Spirit supposedly acted, only occurs at the end of the film and no one would be able to bear the entire film with this annoying character. My option was to follow the theory of Bishop Ernesto Giobano who helped us in Buenos Aires. He knew Bergoglio when he was 16 years old, during the period when the current pope was his professor at the Colégio Máximo and put him in charge of taking care of the seminary’s pigsty. Despite this, Giobano said that the young Bergoglio was happy and told jokes like he does today, and as he took on more responsibility he became harder. He believes that Bergoglio began to return to the way he was a few years before he became pope. In his later years, while he was still living in Buenos Aires, he was already becoming lighter. That’s what he said. It was great news. I embarked on this project using the bishop’s version, and Jonathan Pryce will play a more palatable Bergoglio.

Anyway, this story of transformation, which disturbed me for a while, is good news. It gives me some hope in terms of myself. It shows me that we can improve even after the age of 70. And it even dropped the bomb of the day:  O Tchan was wrong! A branch that’s born crooked, can still straighten out.

Fernando.

(12/4/2017)

Click here to take another look at the texts that Fernando Meirelles sent to this website during the production of the feature films Blindness and 360.