The Constructing of a Pope

By Cristiane Barbieri | For Valor from São Paulo

“The first scene filmed was of no great importance in the screenplay. It was just a five second image of the girlfriend of the future pope, the young Jorge Bergoglio, getting dressed in front of an old three panel vanity mirror. She thought he would ask her to marry him that night, and like me that day, she was nervous.” This is how the cineaste Fernando Meirelles, 62, describes the beginning of the filming of The Pope, the provisional title of his film about the relationship between Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, which he has been directing for Netflix since November.

In his blog about The Pope, Meirelles also makes political comments. “The market cannot be the only parameter used in making a country’s decisions,” he says.

This description is from his blog about this production that can be seen on the O2 Filmes website, and it becomes a lesson about how a “simple little shot” became a way of playing with the triple image provided by the mirrors, using projections of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s “Pietá” based on an idea inspired by the director of photography. “Today’s first lesson: never underestimate any chance to be inventive, no matter how trivial the scene may appear to be.”

With a mixture of reflections on cinema, research into the history of Argentina and the Vatican and even philosophy, this blog helps Meirelles think and organize his ideas regarding his work, and refine the concepts of the film that he’s constructing. “During the production process, the practical demands are so great that, if I don’t make myself do this, I simply won’t think about what I’m doing,” Meirelles tells Valor.

Scheduled for release by the end of this year, The Pope was filmed in Cordoba and Buenos Aires in 2017. Now Meirelles will continue to film it in Rome and its environs, already with the older actors in the main roles. Cardinal Ratzinger will be played by Anthony Hopkins, an actor who Meirelles says conveys presence and authority, even though he’s a man of few gestures and words, like Pope Benedict XVI himself. Cardinal Bergoglio is being brought to life by Jonathan Pryce, who has the lightness and sense of humor of Pope Francis, according to the director. His similarity with the current pope was noted on the social networks when he played the role of the religious leader High Sparrow in the series Game of Thrones.

Based on a theatrical play by the New Zealander Anthony McCarten (nominated for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything), The Pope will appear briefly in the cinema and afterwards will be exhibited solely on the streaming platform. Meirelles also comments on the current political situation in Brazil in this interview. “It’s time to abandon our pet corrupt candidates,” he says. “I’m not going to re-elect anyone in 2018.” The main excerpts appear below:

Valor: What’s it like working with Netflix? You wrote in your blog that the screenplay, which was negotiated line by line, changed 40% in the first scene you filmed. Do you have a more authorial profile?

Fernando Meirelles: I think that when it comes time for the editing, there’ll be lots of notes and comments, but if the film works, even though this is not what they’ve been expecting, no one will complain. The producers are very competent and their comments are always helpful. If the film turns out bad, then yes the inquisition will be all over me, but I’ll be prepared, because as I learned with Riobaldo: ‘Life is very dangerous.’ I’d like to be more authorial, but the world doesn’t work that way anymore. You have to maintain a dialogue with the people who are paying for the film and the audience that will see it afterwards; it’s part of the package. “Let’s go”; it’s game time.

Valor: The Pope will only appear on this platform?

Meirelles: The film will have a small short run in the cinema, but the main objective is the platform. In principle, this will take place just in the United States, but I’m trying to convince them to release it in Brazil, Argentina and Italy as well. The fact that this is a release for the platform makes my life much easier. The release is one of the most difficult phases of making a film and this time I won’t have to go through it. Once it’s ready, it’ll run for two weeks and then go straight to TV. “Game over”. Another beautiful thing about this platform is that it doesn’t matter a bit whether Justice League, Spiderman, and Toy Story premiere that same week. Not even a light saber from Star Wars can affect it. They will come and go and this film will still be there available for years, until they change the system again. In fact, I don’t know of another market that’s changing as radically and intensely as the audiovisual market. Even I don’t know where we’re going. But I’m along for the ride.

Valor: In one of your posts, you talk about the radicalization and strengthening of the right throughout the world. We’re going to have elections in Brazil and a candidate of this stripe is one of those leading in the polls. Does this worry you? What’s your view of the Brazilian political scenario?

Meirelles: When I see people defending that outdated Bozo who’s ruling the United States, my jaw drops. The argument they use that the American economy has improved is no justification. The market can’t be the only parameter used in making a country’s decisions, especially a country like Brazil, which urgently needs to take care of so many more people. The market has to cede somewhat. But more than the presidential election, I’m paying attention to the elections for Congress. There are many very good movements appearing, with young candidates who don’t share the vices and corruption of those who have been there for a long time. I think we’re going to have a renewal like we’ve never had in Brazil before. It’s time to abandon our pet corrupt candidates. I’m not going to re-elect anyone in 2018.

Valor: Did you write daily accounts of your filming before you began writing your blogs on O2’s website?

Meirelles: Yes, I’ve done it several times before. Writing helps me think about and organize the ideas I’m working on. Putting them on O2’s website forces me to flesh them out properly. If I just wrote them on my computer, the texts wouldn’t have the same quality.

Valor: What’s the filming process like?

Meirelles: Filming is like a kind of autumn, except instead of leaves, it’s pennies that drop. It mixes a few of these connections that have occurred to me, like a “making of” video. The blog is the same. The O2 Filmes website, which is where I’m publishing it, is followed by many of the people who work there and are beginning to make films. It’s this group of youths whom I’m writing for. I think this can be useful to them.

Valor: The formalization of these impressions helps shape the way in which the film is constructed?

Meirelles: By writing, I end up making connections that haven’t occurred to me before. When this happens, like it is at the moment, I end up including new lines of dialogue or modifying the editing to make these connections more evident for those who are watching. It’s a dialectic process: one thing feeds the other.

Valor: The process of constructing the film described in the blog seems like a practical class in cinema. Could your notes become a book?

Meirelles: While I was still studying architecture, but was beginning to think about making films, I read a book by (the cineaste) Sidney Lumet [1924-2011] called Making Movies, in which he describes step by step the filming process. To me, who’d just read a few theoretical texts about cinema and was living in another world, it was a revelation to see how this process takes place in practice. I began to like this type of book. Spike Lee also had the habit of writing a book about each film he did, and I read a few of them. I also read a good book by [the journalist] Michael Herr (1940 – 2016) about the 20 years he spent collaborating with the eccentric genius Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999). Diving into the director’s process always interests me. By reading these books, I learned that there’s no correct way of making films, and this made me feel free to find my own way of making them.

Valor: Your reflections go beyond technical matters, like this excerpt about The Pope: “And then the penny dropped. Amid all these confessions, what made these confessors suffer was guilt. It never appeared so clear to me that we’re our own severest critics. It hurts to face oneself …” Is this common?

Meirelles: During the production process, the practical demands are so great that, if I don’t make myself do this, I simply won’t think about what I’m doing until the end. Writing gives me a perspective on my work.

Valor: Seeing your posts, you seem to have gone way beyond the screenplay in your research about the Pope, Argentina and the dictatorship. How does this research work?

Meirelles: The beauty of this profession is that it obliges you to dive into worlds that you do not know, like the Vatican in this case. In my mind, the Argentinean dictatorship was a somewhat disconnected series of images and information. Now I have a better idea of our neighbors’ very complex history. In fact, because of this film, I’ve gotten to know Argentina much better. And I love it.