The Two Popes, 2019.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins and Juan Minujín.
Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis meet as the latter proposes his retirement from the church.
Netflix really wants some big Oscars this year. It has a lot of hope pinned to Martin Scorsese’s career-capping gangster epic The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s fiercely human divorce tale Marriage Story, but it will also be putting a lot of faith – if you’ll pardon the pun – in The Two Popes. There’s Oscar pedigree behind the camera in the shape of City of God director Fernando Meirelles, but much of the hope is faced on the duelling performances of Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as the titular pontiffs.
The film opens with the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent papal conclave, with the two main choices established as ultra-conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) and the more progressive Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce). It’s the former who emerges victorious and becomes Pope Benedict XVI, while the other returns to Argentina. Years later, Bergoglio is keen to step away from his senior role and take a parish, so he travels to Vatican City in order to ask the Pope for permission to do so. As we all know, Bergoglio would ultimately become Pope Francis, so it’s fair to say something changes his mind.
This is a very traditional two-hander, with the focus largely on the fictionalised meeting between Ratzinger and Bergoglio. The script is penned by historical drama specialist Anthony McCarten, responsible for recent Oscar hits including Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything, and it’s exactly as gently enjoyable as those movies. There’s no demanding material here – it runs a mile from the child abuse scandal – and instead the focus is on two great actors shooting the breeze.
There’s a real joy to the simplicity of The Two Popes, which knows exactly what it has in the heavyweight presence of its two leading men. Hopkins plays Ratzinger as an out-of-touch traditionalist, unaware of popular culture – except for, bizarrely, dog-based procedural comedy Kommissar Rex – and troubled by any sort of modernisation. Pryce, meanwhile, oozes charm as the witty, perceptive Bergoglio – a flexible man who evidently considers every argument made to him and acknowledges the need for Catholicism to appear more malleable. Their first interaction involves Hopkins asking Pryce in Latin which hymn he is whistling in the Vatican bathroom. “Dancing Queen… by ABBA,” is the reply. It sums up the differences between these two men in a nutshell.
Meirelles’ film is at its best when it just follows the two men gently bristling against each other, rowing about their conflicting takes on their shared religion. They meander through the verdant greenery of the papal gardens, with the thrum of insect noise providing a backdrop to their theological squabbling, conveyed in increasingly intense close-ups as the discussions become fierier. The frequent use of handheld camera style akin to The Thick of It neatly undercuts the inherent grandeur of these characters, showing us the human beings behind the fancy robes.
But the movie struggles somewhat when it steps away from these simple setups. Bergoglio’s backstory is filled in by a seemingly endless flashback in the second hour, which halts the movie’s momentum in its tracks and fails to add much more to the climactic scenes. Most irritating, though, is the treatment of the child abuse scandal, which is invoked and then summarily swept under the carpet in favour of another enjoyably goofy moment. When Hopkins’ Ratzinger finally opts to confess, Meirelles’ movie bottles it entirely by obscuring his words with a wall of white noise. It’s a disservice to everyone affected by the endemic scandal of abuse in the Catholic church.
If Netflix is truly joining the awards game, as it seems to be this year, movies like The Two Popes are an inevitable part of the bargain. First and foremost, the entire project is constructed as an acting showcase for the legendary actors behind the historical figures and, from that perspective, it’s tough to fault. However, the movie doesn’t have anything more to it beyond the novelty of seeing two senior priests enjoying a pizza and a bottle of Fanta together. This movie might well be papal, but it’s far from infallible.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.