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Singapore: Fernando Meirelles on Making ‘The Two Popes’ a Catholic Film With Universal Appeal (EXCLUSIVE)

Netflix Original film, “The Two Popes,” from Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated director of “City of God,” arrives at the Singapore International Film Festival as part of a global festival run that includes Telluride, Toronto, Busan, London, Mumbai, Camerimage and AFI.

Adapted from his own play by fellow Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything”), the film follows Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who, frustrated with the direction of the church, requests permission to retire in 2012 from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Pope Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor, as Pope Francis, to Rome. Theological sparring ensues. The film is riding a groundswell of Oscar buzz including speculation of acting nominations for Pryce and Hopkins.

“When I started the project I never had this expectation,” Meirelles told Variety. “Because it is a film about two men talking about a very specific issue, religion. I thought it would be a nice film for a specific niche, which would be great at Netflix, because the niche at Netflix is very big, right? If it went just to a Catholic audience from Netflix, it is huge. But it worked well and now there is this buzz and I’m happy to embrace it.”

The film was made without the participation of the Vatican. “What we wanted from the Vatican was the possibility of shooting at St Peter’s Square and using some of their facilities, but we couldn’t,” says Meirelles. “They never allow cinema to use their facilities. And I understand the Vatican. If they allowed us to shoot inside their property, they are supporting the film. If they say no, they are rejecting the film, or censoring the film. What they did is they never really replied to us. They said: ‘we’ll talk later’ and they never did.

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“So, we found other ways to shoot. We found different locations in Rome, used lots of green screen and CGI. At the end of the process they let us use some of their footage, like the funeral of John Paul II, and some images that belong to Vatican TV.”

The film has met with an overwhelmingly positive response throughout its festival run. “The (first cut) had a lot more of the Popes praying, long prayers, and people kneeling. I cut all these images, because I didn’t want it to look like a Catholic film.

“There is a spiritual message in the film, but I wanted to make it more universal. So both of (the Popes) talk about the moment where they lose their faith. They didn’t lose their faith, but they felt that they weren’t connected. That’s the spiritual approach in the film. This is a universal message, even if you have a different religion, you will relate to what the two Popes are feeling.”

There are plans to revive McCarten’s play in London, after the film is released. “The Two Popes” plays at the Singapore festival on Sunday and streams on Netflix from Dec. 20.

Meirelles’ next is an as yet untitled film on climate change for Netflix, which will start shooting in the last quarter of 2020.

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