The Two Popes
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce go toe to toe in Fernando Meirelles’s (City of God) captivating take on the ascension to the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis. As the title suggests, The Two Popes tells the inside story of a seismic shift in the Roman Catholic church, from Pope Benedict’s strictly conservative vision to Francis’ approach to aligning the church with a more progressive age.
That short history lesson aside, The Two Popes doesn’t require much prior knowledge of the inner workings of the church. Context is provided deftly through dialogue and quick cutaways to newscasters explaining the drama ensuing. From the off we’re thrown into the birth of the Catholic church’s most recent civil war. John Paul II has just died, and the search for a successor is on – and with it the direction of the faith.
Hopkins turns in an outstanding performance as the unloved, maligned Benedict. His performance is matched by the equally absorbing Pryce, revelling in the role of the affable Francis, blessed with the common touch.
Netflix’s latest raid on awards season is based on the 2017 play The Pope, by Anthony McCarten, who translates the play’s script effortlessly onto screen. It helps to have two leads as accustomed to theatre as Hopkins and Pryce. Francis and Benedict’s rambling, flashback-inducing parleys are the lifeblood of the film. Engrossing, charming and simply entertaining, Hopkins and Pryce are a joy to watch.
The picture is not without its faults, though. Artistic license has doubtless exaggerated the friendship between the two central men. We’re expected to revel in the pair’s bromance, with both portrayed as ultimately penitent, kindly figures. In reality, this is very much in doubt. Significantly, The Two Popes omits a detailed confession from Benedict concerning the church’s inability to deal with paedophiles in its ranks. Perhaps it was blanked out for fear of legal action from the Vatican.
There is a sense that Meirelles wants the movie to point the way forward for the church while relaying a message of understanding to the wider world. Portraying Francis as deeply sympathetic and brotherly towards Benedict promotes the Pope’s call to “build bridges” in the world. Ultimately, however, The Two Popes relies on a strong script that provides a springboard for two masters of the craft to act out a sliding-doors moment for the Catholic church.
The Two Popes is released in select cinemas on 29th November 2019 and on Netflix on 20th December 2019.
Watch the trailer for The Two Popes here: