A still from The Two Popes.
In the opening scene of The Two Popes, which premiered on Netflix last month, Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce, is attempting to book himself on a flight from Rome to Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. The operator is disbelieving: of course, it's not the Pope, the religious leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, on the line; somebody is playing a prank. "But it was real. One of the first things he did after he became the Pope in May was to go there to see the refugees and he tried to book the flight himself, so it was a big joke. That scene is faithful to what happened," says Fernando Meirelles, when the film was screened at last year's JIO Mumbai International Film Festival (MAMI).
The Two Popes, with its exploration of the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio, who would later succeed him as Pope Francis, the politics of the Papal elections, and its drone shots of the magnificent Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, is a far cry from City of God (2002), the 64-year-old Brazilian filmmaker's breathtaking and harrowing film about violence and redemption, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. But Meirelles doesn't stray too far from the concerns that really speak to him - in the final montage of the film, he juxtaposes images of life jackets strewn on a beach, and the figures on the Sistine Chapel seeking holy salvation. If that is heaven and this is earth, there's not much dividing the two. "Thank you for saying that, you got my message. I'm always trying to understand who am I and what have I to do here; what matters and what doesn't. I always tend to see the big picture," says Meirelles.
Written by Anthony McCarten, who adapted it from his own 2017 play, The Pope, the story itself didn't draw in Meirelles immediately but he says it was a chance to get to know Pope Francis better. "I like his politics more than his religious beliefs. I'm agnostic and I don't see god like he does. But I like the way he sees the world, that we need to look at ourselves as 'mankind', without nationalities, as brothers," he says.
This is the second time Meirelles is working with Hopkins, after 360 (2011), a multilingual film with an international star cast. "Tony's role was of a guy who is searching for his daughter, who he'd fought with and who ran away. The first time we met, he said, 'I'm going to play Anthony Hopkins in the film. I will just be myself.' That's because Tony has a daughter, they had a fight, and she doesn't speak to him. The character was an alcoholic, and at the time, Tony was one too," he says.
Things have been different with The Two Popes. Today, Meirelles describes Hopkins as a classical musician and Pryce as a jazz musician - if the former began preparing for the role of the mirthless and imperious retired pope six months before shooting commenced, the latter would waltz in with his lines ready, but would improvise at the drop of a hat. If there's a word that Meirelles uses to describe his cinematic language, it is that. "I think it's very improvised. I trust my instinct very much; I don't plan and I never storyboard. I'm resourceful and I have ideas for everything; I keep inventing. Filmmaking just comes to me," he says.
And it has, since the very beginning of his career. Meirelles trained to be an architect and had bought a camera to make a video for his graduation thesis. "I was very inspired by the work of Norman McLaren, the Canadian animator, and I made a lot of experimental stuff. Around that time, I also entered some of it for the first video festival in Brazil; I won a few awards and the next day, a guy came over to my house and invited me to direct a TV show. I jumped in; I had a week to learn how to direct for television," says Meirelles, who is one of the co-founders of O2 films, arguably the largest production company in Brazil.
Meirelles's next film is on a subject one had not quite imagined the filmmaker to embark upon: soil. "It's a documentary about how soil works. The beauty of this film for me is that it's being made for those who are interested in learning. It's for students, professors, farmers: it's not meant to be entertaining," he says.
All through our conversation, Meirelles speaks about the ways in which cinema has allowed him to travel and see the world in different ways. But nothing, it seems, can alleviate his fear of the horrors of climate change that have already begun to affect vast areas in many countries. "I see myself as an earthling, not just a Brazilian. I think about death often, maybe once or twice an hour. I'm just a little nobody who is here on this earth for a brief second. I know the size of my insignificance. But now I think that mankind will disappear because the planet will disappear," he says.