Premise: Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.
When you have an event in the Catholic Church that hasn’t occurred in around 700 years, it’s almost inevitable for a film depiction of that event. In the case of The Two Popes, that event was the abdication of the papacy by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 and the ascension of Pope Francis. Director Fernando Meirelles, with a script from Anthony McCarten, depicts the event as a series of meetings between the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) and then-cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) as the two debate faith, and the role the church plays in helping its members. The film establishes within minutes, following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the election of a new Pope by the conclave of cardinals at the Vatican, the differences between the two and what is at stake for the church as a whole: one is all about reform, and one is more conservative. Pope Benedict (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) is the favorite, who is seen actively campaigning after the first vote, whereas Bergoglio is more reluctant and even seems relieved when he is not elected. Fast forward seven years and Bergoglio considers retirement when he is called to Rome. The bulk of the film takes place at the pope’s summer home in the Italian countryside where Bergoglio attempts to persuade Benedict to accept his resignation, and Benedict stalls, hoping that he will stay. The film is stripped of some of its drama because we already know the end result, but Meirelles uses these scenes to emphasize the differences between the two men; whereas Bergoglio sees himself as a servant of the people (a core teaching of the Jesuit sect to which he belongs), Benedict believes the church is a beacon on a hill, helping to steer people in the right direction while remaining at arms’ length. “Change is compromise”, Benedict states early in their meeting.
Meirelles’ direction tends to be either frustrating or inspiring, seemingly dependent on the setting and the subject matter. Too frequently he relies on weird zooms, pans, and glides, and eerie close-ups to try and spice up dialogue-heavy scenes. McCarten’s dialogue is already one of the highlights of the film, so distracting with unusual camera moves only makes the scene difficult to watch. On the other hand, some shots are well done – specifically, all the scenes in the Sistine Chapel, including a humorously choreographed moment during the first conclave. One scene begins with Bergoglio walking in to meet Pope Benedict; he enters the chapel in darkness, but the camera pulls back and the room fills with light to see all the details.
Though both actors are given almost equal screen time, Jonathan Pryce is the main focus and audience surrogate for much of the film. Pryce shows how strongly he believes in what he preaches, but never without showing respect to the Pope. There are no shouting matches, but Hopkins and Pryce are resolute in their convictions. Yes, the two have ideological differences, but we never get the impression that they are less than friends. Anthony Hopkins, meanwhile, plays Benedict as someone who is out of touch with society, but still remains sharp as a tack. He may not know who the Beatles or ABBA are, but he knows plenty about the history of his office and the burden that comes with it.
The film loses some momentum with a late flashback sequence that explores Bergoglio’s past and his early days as a priest in Argentina, when many of his friends and followers were persecuted by a murderous regime. The scenes help to underscore his reluctance to lead the church, as well as his lifelong connection to helping the disenfranchised, but they end up being too long and they’re only explored through some unnaturally clunky exposition.
Moviegoers may lament the film’s glossing-over of some of the larger controversies that played out during Benedict’s time as pope – the sound literally drops out when the two are discussing the latest child sex abuse scandal, and again when Hopkins confesses his sins. But while it’s not the primary focus of the film, it’s hard to look past Meirelles’ decisions. The Two Popes provides an interesting peek behind the curtain at the life of the head of the Catholic Church, but it comes up slightly short as a two-handed biography. McCarten’s script injects enough humor to a tale of two stuffy old men to make it fun and engaging – including a recurring bit involving the pope’s smart watch. The acting of Hopkins and Pryce give life and heart to men that rarely show a personal side to the public. It’s just a shame that the film is handicapped by Meirelle’s uneven directing choices.
FINAL TAKE: I’d love to get a take on this film from someone that wasn’t raised Catholic like myself. Even though I wasn’t a Bible scholar or church historian, I certainly knew the pope and his importance to the Church and its followers, so the “inside baseball” aspect of The Two Popes really resonated with me.
Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.