Every now and again, it’s refreshing to see a film like The Two Popes, a film not concerned by the big-scale theatrics but is happily content spending time with two legendary actors as they delightfully spar with each other as they discuss the future of the Catholic Church. It’s also a breath of fresh air watching these same, committed pros confidently speak to each other in different languages. Plus, any use of ABBA used in a manner that you wouldn’t expect, will always be something to treasure! By all means, The Two Popes is not a straightforward biopic – inspired by true events on the transitional period between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the current Pope, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). It’s just astounding at how much it takes you by surprise, and it does so by leaving you with a smile on your face.
Taking a double-take reminder that this was directed by the man who gave us City of God and The Constant Gardener, the stylistic change of pace behind Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes comes out of the blue. Based on previous form, you would have expected a hard-hitting examination instead of a carefully crafted, intimate character study full of wit and the occasional emotional reflection on self-worth to be God’s servant. Comedy-drama is a tough dynamic to nail down; at times the balance doesn’t quite work, but Meirelles and fellow scriptwriter Anthony McCarten have enough restraint and control to make it accessible and watchable.
It certainly explains its narrow-minded vision, focussing more on the inner workings of Pope Benedict and Francis’ relationship than circulate beyond to examine the child abuse scandals and subsequent problems that ended Pope Benedict’s reign. Some may view it as a missed opportunity by not delving into the controversy, treated more like background noise instead of a Spotlight level of scrutiny. But Meirelles opts for a personal approach, viewed through the lens like a ‘behind the scenes’ expose. He dedicates considerable time in showing the inner-workings of the Church, from their old-school voting system to the regality of riches and privileges that are bestowed on the Pope. But by positioning itself as a ‘hearts and minds’ battle between the strict conservatism of Pope Benedict and the ‘for the people’ liberalism of the future Pope Francis, we witness two actors in their element.
And of course, in a world of polarising divisions, Benedict and Francis can’t see ‘eye to eye’, producing some stern views and mocked opinions like a Mexican standoff. Meirelles keeps the conversation civil despite the differing states of opinion. But where it works best is how those subsequent conversations feed into the popular culture of everyday life, like The Beatles, Benedict’s unadulterated love of Kommissar Rex (Inspector Rex) or what they drink at the dinner table – Francis with his wine, Benedict drinking Fanta. If anything, Meirelles readily establishes their differences that go beyond just Church values; Pryce’s Francis is much more of a free-spirited individual versus the regal stubbornness of Hopkins’ Benedict.
But the moments of surprising levity come from how Francis’ desperation to retire as Archbishop, feeling that he has done all he can for the Church with Benedict finding countless distractions to ignore him and his resignation request. Staged like an intricate job interview, Pope Benedict has plans of his own.
Where it possibly loses momentum is the slow-burn, arthouse flashbacks for Francis (or Cardinal Bergoglio before he assumed the appointed role) on how he ‘answered the call’ to become a priest. Meirelles has fun playing around with the cinema palette, transitioning to the 4×3 black and white picture before introducing colour as if the film was evolving with the times. They’re not bad scenes, they have intentional merit, adding the necessary and poignant context for Francis’ hesitation as to why he’s not a suitable candidate. But because you enjoy the company of Pryce and Hopkins so much, you greedily want to spend more time with them. Furthermore, It’s also the only noticeable time where despite the gifted talents of Jonathan Pryce and his commitment to languages, whenever he spoke in Spanish, it’s dubbed, most likely by Juan Minujin who plays his younger self.
On the other hand, while it does spend that reflective time with Cardinal Bergoglio/Francis, we’re not afforded the same opportunity with Hopkins’ Benedict, not addressing his controversial background (allegedly had links to Nazi Germany/Hitler Youth). His one moment of confession is purposely drowned out by the noise as if it was still a ‘behind closed doors matter’. Hopkins, masterful as always, delivers the sincerity and haggardness of a Pope grown weary of being under pressure, but The Two Popes could have benefited from an equal counterbalancing.
Hopkins and Pryce are a joy to watch, relishing every ‘Odd Couple’, back and forth moment on their belief systems. As if you had invited them around for a Sunday afternoon lunch, there would be no regrets whatsoever, because you would enjoy their company and be engrossed by their banter. They eat pizza, they tango, and they watch the World Cup – what’s not to love?
But it’s also a film that’s very contemplative, looking at forgiveness at the highest echelon of power. For every negative where it avoids relevant discussions, Hopkins and Pryce represent the film’s positive. As a potential futureproof idea for a stage play, their effortless performance remind you of the film’s hearty message – sometimes changes and compromises can be good. The fact that it’s a Netflix film means that you can enjoy this hidden gem again and again.
THE TWO POPES screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. Out in UK cinemas 29th November 2019. Out on Netflix 20th December 2019.