Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins Star as Popes Francis and Benedict XVI.
DIRECTED BY FERNANDO MEIRELLES/2019
This isn’t a knock on the Catholic Church, or this movie, it’s makers, or even subject matter. It’s strictly a commentary on my own assumptions and subsequent reluctance to go see this film: “Do I really want to sit through two hours of two old men in ornate robes hashing out papal drama? One pope sounds boring enough. But two popes?” In short, for reasons both nonprofessional and impatient, I was inclined to skip this one. Besides, this is a Netflix production… it will be on Netflix soon enough, right?
Fortunately, better internal judgment prevailed. Like having dragged oneself to a really good church service (and yet not like church at all), I’m glad I went to the theatrical screening of The Two Popes.
The two popes in question are the two most current, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, played respectively by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. Between their venerability and their previously established “working actor” good will, these two bring a critical good humor to the film, effortlessly exuding a wonderful and frankly unlikely chemistry. I suppose that’s what The Two Popes is all about.
Following the resignation of the conservative, ailing, and somewhat embroiled Pope Benedict in 2013, his successor, Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, was swept into the papacy on a strong internal vote. Demonstrating a pronounced humility and refreshing approach to his ministry, Pope Francis was, for many at a glance, the world’s new advocate of hope and change. He was the Barack Obama of the Vatican, populist and relatable- “the cool pope” for the NPR crowd. This pope would put the common people before church interests. This is the pope who’d rather get pizza from that little joint up the road than eat a fancy meal prepared by the Vatican culinary staff. And crucially, this is the pope who would genuinely address the surfacing history of abuse and scandal that the previous powers-that-be failed to deal with in a satisfactory manner.
No pope, nor any elected official, nor anyone, though, can be all things to all progressives. Over time, Pope Francis the cool pope has inevitably let some of those folks down. Likewise, though, at least from the admittedly distant mid-American protestant perch of this critic, he’s succeeded in in being that guy. And “that guy” is just how Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, City of God) set out to depict him. In portraying Bergoglio (much of this film takes place prior to his accession), the great actor Jonathan Pryce perfectly embodies the older man’s surviving humility and idealism, the spark that survives under a lifetime of toil, hardship, activism, and even regret.
Later in the film, in an extended flashback, much of Bergoglio’s backstory is detailed. In a film that is, for the most part, two old men of differing viewpoints walking around and talking, this flashback sequence feels jarringly out of place. While any screenwriting guru would likely deem it exactly what The Two Popes needs at that point in terms of narrative flow and character revelation, I couldn’t help but feel restless, wondering when we’d get back to the two old guys talking.
That is the true crux and draw of The Two Popes. Though beautifully photographed with breathtaking production design, it truly all comes down to being a prestigious two-hander. Hopkins does an absolutely fine job of carrying his share of the weight. While his demeanor and delivery don’t go beyond the realm of “standard issue Anthony Hopkins”, the approach entirely works here. Although oblivious in a checked-out, grandfatherly way (mistaking a Beatles tune for a hymn, and whatnot) Pope Benedict, though conservative and old-school, is not foolish or automatically wrong about everything. In fact, as depicted, it’s by his unlikely advocacy that Cardinal Bergoglio gets the eventual vote into the papacy.
While not shirking away from things that matter deeply, The Two Popes lands as a surprisingly successful audience pleaser. Meirelles has delivered a fairly breezy film that forsakes the obvious conflict of cool progressive versus stodgy hardliner in favor of detailing a friendship. It’s a friendship between two men that arrived in one another’s presence devoid of most any commonality, save the fundamentals of their faith. Even in that, The Two Popes is no cop out. The movie works in most every way, ascending to the upper echelon of the best films of 2019. Fortunately, this odd couple of popes won’t let a thing such as this go to their heads. And that’s not blowing smoke.