Does the pope really like ABBA, and walk around whistling “Dancing Queen”? Probably not. But Two Popes screenwriter Anthony McCarten skillfully uses the song to help make Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio more relatable.
McCarten repeatedly cites Bergoglio’s down-to-earth approach to help humanize the man who eventually (spoiler alert, if you’re reaalllly not up on the news) replaces Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).
“My M.O. vis-a-vis humor is really just to make things lifelike. I try to put the same percentage of humor in a movie that I perceive there is in real life,” McCarten said in the latest MovieMaker Interviews podcast, which you can check out below.
The film shows us the two popes’ differing approaches to Catholicism and life, and takes care to show us that Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) appreciates such little pleasures as soccer and the tango.
He also likes ABBA, the Swedish disco group that couldn’t be less pretentious or more mass-marketed. We see him whistling the song in a Vatican men’s room, where Benedict inquires about what hymn he’s whistling. Then we hear a lush, orchestral version of the song as Benedict, Bergoglio and others go to choose a new pope.
McCarten says there’s no evidence that either pope is actually an ABBA fan. But he volunteers at the 31:50 mark in the podcast that he was “kind of traumatized by that song” as a youth when his classmates peer-pressured him into dancing to it, with a girl much taller than him, at a school dance.
The film’s director, Fernando Meirelles, told USA Today that the song selection is “a joke that nobody gets,” noting that the songs lyrics parallel the search for a new leader.
“The lyrics at that point of the music say: ‘Friday night and the lights are low … You come to look for a king / Anybody could be that guy’ as the cardinals are walking,” Meirelles said. “We wanted something popular; Bergoglio would be whistling something popular. Probably Pope Benedict (a classical music fan) doesn’t even know what ABBA is.”
Using ABBA and “Dancing Queen” is great screenwriting, because it does a lot at once. Whether people get the joke or not, the song—like the film’s opening—signals to audiences that Two Popes won’t feel like homework.
The latest MovieMaker Interviews also includes an interview with Alan Cumming. You can listen on your favorite platform below:
And here are highlights of the podcast, with timestamps:
1:15: Alan Cumming interview begins.
4:04: “I’ve chosen to do something waaay outside my comfort zone.”
4:45: A few words about cabaret bar Club Cumming.
5:34: “I think I’ve understood from way way long ago how important fun is as a component in your life… especially when you do things that are very dark. And a lot of my work is very dark.”
7:00: Don’t be the kind of DJ who refuses to dance.
11:00: “I think of myself as a character… I think there’s me, and then there’s Alan Cumming. And Alan Cumming goes out and is like, ‘Hello everybody, hi! Yes, I’m here! That’s right. Thanks so much!”
12:30: Let’s talk about the 20th anniversary of Eyes Wide Shut and what he learned working with Stanley Kubrick.
13:05: “It’s a huge thing in my career, even though it’s like maybe four minutes.”
15:55: “There’s a saying, which is, you can go as big as you like, as you want as long as you mean it.”
17:08: Anthony McCarten interview begins, as he explains how he used humor to humanize Two Popes.
18:40: The Vatican’s response to Two Popes.
19:19: “We built our own Sistine Chapel.”
24:00: “There’s very very little tolerance or listening to the other side. … Sometimes the talking should stop and we should listen a little more.”
31:50: ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”: “I was kind of traumatized by that song.”
37:20: Anthony McCarten talks about his script for Bohemian Rhapsody.
41:00: His advice for screenwriters.
The Two Popes is in theaters and on Netflix now.