Fernando Meirelles on directing Netflix's The Two Popes, and why his next film is a timely reminder of climate change
Fernando Meirelles held a masterclass at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, where he was also feted with a Cinema in Excellence (International) Award.
Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles' new Netflix film The Two Popes begins with all things holy and sacred. Then comes a scene in the restroom involving the two titular characters, played by veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, two priests at the Vatican. One hears the other humming something, to which he asks, "Which hymn are you singing?"
"'Dancing Queen' by Abba," replies the other. And then, as the priests vote for who would be the next Pope, an instrumental version of 'Dancing Queen' plays in the background, setting the tone of how Meirelles likes to narrate his stories.
Soon, the humour gives way to intellectually charged exchanges between the two priests, since they differ on the contribution of the Church in shaping the world as it is today. Meirelles confesses when he was approached with a script of the film by Anthony McCarten, he was not invested in anything Catholic. But after reading the script, he realised he was not interested in gangsters either, before he made the cult film City of God, his breakthrough 17 years ago.
"I was more interested in the Pope's politics. In the highly divisive times of today, when nationalism comes at the cost of neglecting all other parts of the world except your nation, Pope Francis still believes the world was one unit. It was very reassuring for me because I also believe the same," says Fernando, at a masterclass at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, where he was also feted with a Cinema in Excellence (International) Award.
"The Vatican didn't want to collaborate with us on this film officially though it's based on true events. I think McCarten has done a brilliant job of fictionalising it by writing the dialogues between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict (his predecessor) by borrowing from their respective sermons or speeches. But the Vatican is a closed place, which is why they didn't want to collaborate or approve of our film. I do hope Pope Francis sees it now. We did hold a screening for those in Rome, outside of the Vatican, But Netflix is still trying for a screening inside the Vatican. But it's up to them whether they want that. I'm fine with whatever they decide," adds Meirelles.
In one of the exchanges between the two priests towards the end of the film, Pryce's character tells Hopkins' character, "Truth is vital but only when you say it with love." His film tells the harshest of truths, but not without a much-needed dose of compassion.
"I do like to believe in hope. But I also believe in climate change. The only way to not be concerned about is to not know anything of it. Unfortunately, I've read too much about it by now. So it's always in the back of the mind. I'm like a person battling terminal illness, who wants to make the most of their life while they're alive," says Meirelles.
He adds he tries to disseminate hope through his work as well. But he doesn't want to shy away from the very fact that the world is ending. "If we have no future, our cinema has no future either. So no point just making movies without informing or reminding the audience."
The Two Popes interestingly deals with the confessions and subsequent journey of reformation of two priests at the Vatican. Meirelles believes the world also needs to confess to the threats it has caused to its future existence, and immediately take drastic steps in order to promise a better tomorrow. "I think we need a cultural change. Unless we achieve that, we can't deal with climate change. As part of evolution, we must realise what we should do at once for the sake of our grandchildren."
Meirelles says he went through an evolution as a filmmaker himself over the years. "Initially, I was a little bogged down by the surround sound. Not very sure of what I wanted. But now, I listen to my intuition much more. For example, if I felt three days before we shot the scene that we needed the two priests to share a pizza, and I went ahead with it. I think we give too much attention to the rational part of our brain. But we must listen to our instincts too."
As much as Meirelles loves improvisation, he reiterates climate change is not an issue that can be dealt with spontaneously. "While I'm extremely pessimistic about the future, I will keep doing my bit both personally and professionally. As a filmmaker, my next film is about climate change. It'll release on Netflix next September. It won't offer any solutions for the crisis, but will remind us yet again that we need to find one."
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