The Two Popes, 2019.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Sidney Cole, Juan Minujín, and Federico Torre.
Explores the relationship and opposing visions between two of the most powerful leaders in the Catholic Church, both of whom must address their own pasts and the demands of the modern world in order to move the church forward.
Director Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes sets an unexpected tone right from its opening scene (at least to anyone only paying attention to the synopsis regarding shifting power and embracing progressive values); a Pope (we don’t see his face but we can clearly deduce which one judging from the timeframe and actor’s voice) attempts to book a commercial flight via phone due to a lack of experience with technology (and a preference to doing some things the old-fashioned human interaction way). He is hung up on promptly after giving the address of the Vatican, capping the offbeat introductory scene.
From there, the script by Anthony McCarten (last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody and before that, Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour) sets up the premise as Anthony Hopkins’ newly voted in Pope Benedict edges out Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio set to Abba’s Dancing Queen of all songs. Yes, Fernando Meirelles is tapping into some irreverent humor here (just wait until you see what German television show Pope Benedict enjoys watching in his free time while drinking a Fanta, or for all I know, maybe he really was that idiosyncratic). Fast-forward some years and the Catholic Church is losing sizable chunks of their following, not to mention facing a massive child pedophilia scandal.
This is where the meat of The Two Popes lies, an extended meeting of roughly a day and a half that sees Cardinal Bergoglio flying out to Rome for a meeting with Pope Benedict to discuss his retirement. At first, it seems that his culpability in knowing that some priests were misbehaving plays a part in his wishes, but by way of lengthy flashbacks (occasionally the exposition can border on slightly excessive) we begin to learn more about some horrific living conditions in 1970s Buenos Aires alongside some difficult choices Bergoglio had to make. What results, is two men of faith not only having a dialogue with one another regarding their liberal and conservative beliefs, seeking to find common ground, but a hard confession to one another founded on genuine forgiveness for their own wrongdoings.
The stinger in all of this is taking another look at who wrote the script; there are sharp retorts (both serious and comical), emotionally powerful stories within stories, and a lingering sadness within both of these men (there are times where one feels bad Bergoglio even got into the Catholic Church considering he was never really able to accomplish any of the positives changes he had in mind for the future, especially as we come to understand the life he gave up). This engaging conversation is kept up for two hours and wisely changes locations every 30 minutes or so, at one point going inside the Vatican itself. As one can imagine, a filmmaker such as Fernando Meirelles is not content to simply shot-reverse-shot the whole endeavor, instead, making good use of the religious murals plastered all over the walls and panned back photography that captures a pristine white color palette wonderfully contrasting with the regal wardrobes.
Of course, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce deserve just as much applause for bringing this material off the page and onto the screen with measured performances that never overdo the theatrical nature of the proceedings. Early on, it’s easy to make the assumption that the majority of these conversations are going to revolve around past and present Pope taking shots at one another over the child-molesting priests running rampant, but Fernando Meirelles smartly only makes that part of the discussion. Obviously, it would be irresponsible to outright ignore, but the specific individuals here have a lot more layers worth exploring that The Two Popes lets breathe in flashbacks without hesitation. They may or may not forgive each other (although you probably already know which one happens if you pay attention to current events involving the Catholic Church), and most importantly, the film never makes audiences feel like they have to make a choice.
The Two Popes opines on the difference between choice and compromise every chance it gets, while also weaving in some analogies grounded in soccer. When these two are not talking their lives and defending their beliefs or cracking jokes (in the case of Pope Benedict, it’s more like failing to understand the simplest of jokes or cultural phenomenons like the Beatles), there are contemplative shots filling facial expressions with regret and mistakes. Most of all, it might restore some people’s faith within the Catholic Church a tiny bit by simply being raw and honest with two remarkably vulnerable turns. Catholicism looks potentially promising under Pope Francis, whereas The Two Popes has all the holy magic it needs from Fernando Marseilles’ direction and Anthony McCarten’s script that blends pain and humor.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com