Current Issue #479

Film Review:
The Two Popes

Netflix

Drawn from Anthony McCarten’s play and screenplay and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, this often speculative, multilingually talky drama (with a light hint of comedy) is built upon divine performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

It’s a movie sure to stir up controversy despite much caution, with Catholics and atheists alike liable to find all manner of problems herein, and yet there’s also no doubt that Hopkins and Pryce are godsends, helping us believe that these troubled men are human despite all the holiness.

We first see Pryce’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis), the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, preaching to an appreciative crowd in a rundown part of town back in 2005 before he’s summoned to Vatican City after the death of Pope John Paul II (whose corpse we surprisingly see in a real news report). Bergoglio thinks he might be appointed the new pope, and it makes him uneasy, although the frontrunner is evidently German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whom Hopkins plays with a stoop, that characteristic sneer and a short temper we didn’t really see in public.

Bergoglio and Ratzinger briefly meet in the lavish mens room as the former hums ABBA’s Dancing Queen, which is then repeated in an instrumental version over recreated footage of the archaic pope-voting process, as some sneaky humour intrudes and, just perhaps, religious types will start being needlessly offended.

Ratzinger, who’s branded a “Nazi” in genuine vox pops from the time, becomes Pope Benedict and, seven years later, is the centre of huge scandals involving the ‘Vatican leaks’ and all those endless pedophile priests, and we see Bergoglio back home trying to resign his role in quiet disgust. When he receives a letter requesting his presence at Benedict’s summer residence (the Palace of Castel Gandolfo), he thinks it’s to discuss his imminent departure, but instead, at first, it seems that Benedict wants to attack him for his criticism of the Church and his supposedly overly progressive views on the whole God thing.

This sets into play the most theatrical section of the film as these two men argue, debate, reminisce, laugh, forgive and bond, with Benedict eventually announcing what we know is coming (his impending resignation from the papacy) before a haunting series of flashbacks where Bergoglio painfully recalls what happened during Argentina’s military dictatorship and ‘Dirty War’. It’s one of Pryce’s greatest, most moving moments onscreen, and far from his best-known roles as spineless, villainous or loopy sorts.

Carefully shot in and around Rome and Cinecittà Studios, with views of the Vatican and beyond to make you think the actors are actually inside (spoiler: they’re not), this is too long and shows its stage roots once too often, no matter how hard director Meirelles (of City Of God, The Constant Gardener and Blindness) tries to open it out for the screen. And yet Pryce and Hopkins ensure we can mostly see past those issues and enjoy a tale that might well be, it must be said, three-quarters-or-so fictional.

Praise be!

Reviewer Rating
7/10

The Two Popes (M) is now streaming on Netflix

DM Bradley

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