4 out of 5
The beauty of this film is its simplicity and it has the human condition at its heart through a wonderful script based on true events.
The Two Popes is a Netflix production and was released in cinemas also for a short run. It is part of their Winter release schedule that saw The Irishman and Marriage Story, among others, being released - and mostly to good reviews. I came to The Two Popes with some anticipation, not for any religious reasons but for the chance to see two great actors playing against each other - two talking heads - who start out disliking each other and end up dancing the tango together!
The story is based on true events and starts with the passing of John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). He is a conservative and is unpopular in his approach and in particular, his handling of the many crises the church inflicted upon itself. This and the continued accusations about his Nazi past dogged his papacy. In 2013 he decided to resign as Pope and Francis (Jonathan Pryce) was elected. The story focuses on these events and delves into the past of Francis, his alignment with the government in Argentina during the uprising there. It also shows us Benedict's love of the piano (played in real life by Anthony Hopkins) and Francis' love of football and the tango.
Director Fernando Meirelles has crafted a heartfelt, emotional, surprisingly hilarious, and powerful cinematic meditation on the meaning of love, spirituality, and hope in an era that’s rife with growing darkness. It also happens to be, with a script from screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody) one of the best written films of 2019. I think, for me, that is its appeal. This is no hagiography. It shows both men as flawed. They are not infallible.
The Two Popes essentially consists of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio in heated discussion just prior to the announcement of Benedict’s renunciation of his position. Hopkins and Pryce engage in a delicate and often delightful push-pull as each Pope challenges and decries the practices of the other. To watch The Two Popes is to watch two of the finest performers of their generation do what they do best, and it is mesmerising.
As fantastic as they are to watch, the real star of this show is McCarten’s script. There’s an indelible wit laced throughout his screenplay that more than makes up for the film’s lack of real action—it is, after all, mostly a film of two men talking. Scripts of that sort are the hardest to pull off, but the banter between the two men, as contentious as it often gets, is nothing short of exquisite as they debate the current moment and future of the Church to which they both gave their lives. McCarten captures the humanity not just of the men but of the philosophies they both represent.
While the film could have done more to address the sexual abuse that ran rampant through the Catholic Church for decades, The Two Popes isn’t afraid to lean into the controversies (albeit mildly, in some cases) to explore how the corruption of The Church has affected the organization as a whole. The meeting between the two men comes at a moment of crisis for The Vatican and its 1.2 billion followers around the globe, which is dramatized by the conflicting viewpoints of both men.
All told, The Two Popes is another marvel of cinema from Meirelles, a filmmaker unafraid to capture the intimate beauty found in unlikely corners of the human experience. Never mind that most people will only catch this from the comfort of their home, this is cinema at its most pure and most moving. It’s a film that proves you don’t need films with a budgetary equivalent of a small country’s GDP to make an impact and stands firmly against the idea that cinema is a dying form. Studios and distribution houses should take note and recognise that mode of conveyance is hardly indicative of quality in this modern age.