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‘The Two Popes’ couldn’t film inside the Sistine Chapel. So Netflix built a bigger one

By Ashley Lee
Los Angeles Times

“The Two Popes” stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Benedict XVI and the soon-to-be Pope Francis, respectively. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, the Netflix movie  imagines a number of enlightening conversations that may have taken place between them in 2012, months before their unprecedented transfer of power within the Catholic Church.

Though vastly different from each other in papal approach, they find common ground in the Sistine Chapel. They chat while traversing the Vatican City landmark; they jointly admire Michelangelo’s masterful frescoes. They forgive and pray for each other, and even share a pizza in a small, private room.

This dialogue-heavy sequence could never actually be filmed in such an iconic place, one that limits its number of daily visitors and forbids any kind of photography. In fact, the Vatican does not allow any narrative projects to film on location (only documentaries are approved on a case-by-case basis).

Therefore, the only option was to re-create the entire interior of the chapel — a meticulous, 10-week feat achieved inside Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

“Ours is actually 1 or 2 inches bigger than the original, so we can technically say that we made the bigger Sistine Chapel,” joked production designer Mark Tildesley, who also found locations around Rome to stand in for all of the various Vatican exteriors.

Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio, right, and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict in a scene from "The Two Popes."

This re-creation process was guided by Enrico Bruschini, a noted historian and art expert who has written multiple books on all things Vatican and gives group tours of the chapel weekly.

“He knows every corner of the place,” said Meirelles of Bruschini, who served as a consultant on the film and treated the director to a private tour of the chapel, along with Tildesley and cinematographer César Charlone.

But how to duplicate Michelangelo’s 16th-century tableaus, which adorn the Sistine’s walls and ceiling? Painting the detailed images by hand would take months, and simply printing the scenes on paper would sacrifice its luster and texture.

“The Sistine Chapel has been refurbished — the artwork was darkened by hundreds of years of candle wax, which was cleaned — so its colors are as effervescent and glorious as it must have been originally,” said Tildesley. “We wanted to make sure we captured that somehow, because it’s so strong and powerful in person.

“Also, this is a story about honesty, essentially,” he added, “so we felt a duty to be as true to the real thing as possible.”

Thankfully, art director Stefano Maria Ortolani had experience with a “tattoo wall” technique, similar to the temporary tattoos that are applied onto the skin with water. In this case, an image is printed onto a film, transferred to a surface and covered with a substance that sucks the paint into the plaster.

The team studied photos taken by a company that cleaned the chapel about a decade ago, and hired local artists to paint some of the tableaus at one-third of the actual size. These were then photographed, enlarged, and printed for the tattooing technique. This part of the process took about eight weeks.

“It had to be the highest possible quality because we knew there would be close-ups,” said Tildesley, particularly of the famous fresco “The Last Judgment.”

“It’s a fitting image for our story,” Tildesley explained, “because our central quandary is people seeking forgiveness from each other.”

The replica’s floor pattern was print, cut and laid like a mosaic tile, and a ceiling was added digitally in post-production, since the studio space wasn’t as tall as the actual chapel.

“When we finished and first revealed it to our director, I lit a little bit of incense and played some music,” said Ortolani. “It really makes you feel like you’re in the real place.”

The on-screen conversation continues in the Room of Tears, a space where newly elected popes change into their official robes for the first time. “We were able to visit that room — we couldn’t take photos, but we had our cellphones,” Meirelles admitted. “And then we reproduced it exactly as it is.”

It’s definitely not a space meant for eating, which is why that moment, in which the men split a pizza, wasn’t originally in Anthony McCarten’s script

Like any other movie, the Sistine Chapel set was stricken once production wrapped. “Unfortunately it had to come down, since the studio was needed for another project,” Tildesley lamented. “But we cut it down into bite-size fragments, and there are sections of it in the offices and homes of various producers and members of the crew — anyone who were strong enough to carry some of it away.”

Tildesley has a piece of the chapel on display in the living room of his Italian home, and Ortolani kept a sample of the mosaic tile floor. But Meirelles walked away from the set empty-handed. “The fresco is printed on a wall that’s about an inch-and-a-half thick, so you have to take this big piece of plaster,” he said. “I knew the piece I wanted, but it was too heavy. I had to let it go.”