The Two Popes volleys back and forth between light and dark tonal shifts, but is benefited greatly from moments of divine inspiration by its two leads. At its base, the film is about one man replacing another for a job. It just happens that this occupational transition involves taking over the Catholic Church and that impacts over a billion followers worldwide. The transfer of the Papacy from 2013 was a nearly unprecedented event as a sitting Pope hadn’t resigned in over 700 years. The screenplay here from Andrew McCarten imagines the potential talks that could have happened behind giant Vatican doors between the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the current Cardinal Bergoglio and soon to be Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Both men’s crises of faith are explored in dramatic ways, but they also eat pizza, talk music, and take in a soccer match while the weighty stuff is happening.
This gorgeously edited version of history from director Fernando Meirelles takes us behind the scenes of two conclaves and the Sistine Chapel as the church is experiencing various scandals. The death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 posits the question of whether the Catholic upper echelon should move in a different direction. German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger represents the old guard while Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio advocates for a different and more inclusive approach. The old guard prevails for years until Benedict contemplates the unthinkable act of renouncing the position.
The picture is mostly a two-man show that would probably work well as a stage play. It’s an excuse for Pryce (who bears a very passing resemblance to Francis) and Hopkins to have lengthy conversations about flagging faith and the pristine halls of power. And because these two leaders are human, after all, even contemporary subjects like ABBA and the Beatles come up. Hopkins is no stranger to portraying figures staring down the prospect of abdicating the throne (he did so in alternative fashion in Oliver Stone’s potent Nixon).
Like that film, the use of flashbacks is incorporated for context into the protagonist’s background. That character here is Bergoglio and the makers of The Two Popes are clearly in his corner with his focus on the poor and the environment. Yet the often humorous script is sympathetic to Benedict as he ponders his momentous choice. Juan Minujin plays the future Francis from a young priest hearing the call of his Father to a more seasoned one grappling with political upheaval in his native country. These sections are more hit or miss. They’re perhaps a little less involving because we want to get back to the master class of acting courtesy of Pryce and Hopkins. These two veterans make this well worth the price of the Netflix streaming admission.
*** (out of four)