“Verisimilitude” is a $10 word that is quite handy these days. It means “giving the appearance of being true or real.”
It might be an appropriate, if clunky, label for a new genre of docu-fiction, where relatively recent or even current events are portrayed, but with a blending of fact and fantasy that both gives the appearance of being true while at the same time claiming creative license when challenged.
The third season of the “The Crown” is a case in point. It continues to tell the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family.
It is more than just a documentary’s recounting of history, for it tries to get at the inner dynamics of this famously reserved queen and her unusual family. Affairs, cruelties and excesses are all played out for a titillated audience.
One biographer of the real queen, Sally Bedell Smith, told The Washington Post that now when she gives talks, the audience only wants to talk about “The Crown.” “They take it as gospel,” she said of her audiences.
The article goes on to say that “because [the show] is based on real and famous people, because the production values are so rich and convincing and the writing and acting so polished, viewers are unable to distinguish what is real from what is embellished.”
The same could be said of “The Two Popes,” now streaming on Netflix. It takes two very real popes — Benedict XVI and Francis — and imagines an encounter over a period of days between the two. The title is misleading, since the primary encounter takes place before Francis is actually pope.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio flies to Rome to submit his resignation to a rather grumpy and unsympathetic Benedict. Over the course of the film, Bergoglio gives stirring talks, both men hear each other’s confession and Benedict uses the backdrop of the Sistine Chapel to confide his plan to resign.
While the secular reviews have been fairly enthusiastic, commenting on the production values, the dialogue and the acting, those who know a bit more about the Vatican have trouble with the blurring of a teaspoon of fact with a shovelful of fiction.
Indeed, the sets are striking, as are Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio and Anthony Hopkins as Benedict. But the script they inhabit paints one pope as hip, sensitive, enlightened and progressive, while the other is reactionary, backwards looking, anti-social and out of touch. I’ll let you guess which is which.
We see the two men pontificate (pun intended), debate, soften and ultimately become unlikely allies, all set against some great backdrops (Castel Gandolfo, the Sistine Chapel, even the courtyard in front of the Apostolic Palace where Bergoglio dances the tango with Benedict in front of the bemused papal staff).
But, as Commonweal’s Rita Ferrone notes “all of this, of course, is fiction.” Most disturbing is that the film suggests Benedict somehow bears responsibility for the monstrous sexual abuser Father Marcial Maciel, which is exactly “not” the case, while suggesting Bergoglio was a stirring advocate for abuse victims, which was a role he only gradually grew into.
What has disturbed me is that friends and family members who have seen the film are often completely unaware of how false the film is. They treat it as revelatory, not fantasy. Their reaction recalls the comment about “The Crown,” that “viewers are unable to distinguish what is real from what is embellished.”
The filmmaker’s artistry creates the illusion of reality, but the liberties it takes make it neither true nor real. Rather its oversimplified caricatures do damage that today’s journalists and tomorrow’s historians will have to correct.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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