In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) steps into power. He wishes for the church to resume their conservative ways and comes head-to-head with liberal Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) when he requests permission to retire in 2012. A meeting between these two very different individuals inspires a struggle between tradition and progress, conversations about guilt and forgiveness, and a deep dive into the past that will inspire a new direction and future for the church.
Written by Anthony McCarten (‘The Theory of Everything’, ‘Darkest Hour’), directed by Fernando Meirelles (‘City of God’, ‘The Constant Gardener’) and led by two brilliant actors in Jonathon Pryce (who should at least get an Oscar nomination for his performance here) and Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Two Popes’ has a lot of things going for it. Indeed, it makes for a surprisingly entertaining feature, not least because in terms of genre, it’s essentially a buddy comedy.
Pryce and Hopkins make an exquisite odd couple. Bergoglio displays several adorable quirks from an early stage, such as whistling ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ in the bathroom, while later we learn he does tango once a week and loves watching football. He displays an enthusiastic personality and cheeky sense of humour and Pryce is excellent in the role, playing it totally different to anything else we’ve seen him in before (being no stranger to franchises having done a turn in Bond and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ as well as ‘Game of Thrones’). Hopkins commands the screen where appropriate, representing Benedict as more than meets the eye too, playing piano cabaret tunes and fawning over an Austrian TV show about a crime-solving dog. But for Pryce, this could very well be the performance of his career, surpassing even his deliciously evil High Sparrow.
The two speak of faith in a plain and pure way, one coming from a stern place of tradition, the other determined for revolution. They discuss issues like celibacy, homosexuality and narcissism and abuse in the church fervently with Cardinal Bergoglio pointing out that change has been constant – angels were only used in the church from the 5th century while celibacy was only practised from the 12th century. Such conversations are held in these lush, picturesque backdrops and while both are very stubborn, their oppositions even coming across in their facial expressions whereby one is gentle and kind while the other is grumpy (you can guess which is which). Still you have to come on side with the Cardinal’s point that the church has to change and evolve if it is to survive, or else it will die out with its old men.
The dialogue is profound but accessible, moving from matters of faith to conversations about finding purpose in one’s life, the diversity of music, aging, doubt, and what it means to be human. Meirelles also includes some stylisation in his feature, for example, in the papal election voting process and soundtrack, as well as use of black-and-white for flashback sequences. Unfortunately it is in the latter where the film suffers. When it treks back to reveal Bergoglio’s life story, the movie shifts tonally and loses a great deal of pacing and effect. One understands the significance of the sequence in terms of the aforementioned themes of self-doubt and forgiveness, but it also shows that Meirelles’ attempt to make this story both earnest and amusing may have been too great a task. By the end, at least, it goes back into buddy mode and has found resolution and a final message of hope that there’s a lot of love in the world and much to look forward to.
Overall, being much more funny and heart-warming than you’d expect, ‘The Two Popes’ is surprising, not exceptional, but thoroughly enjoyable.