The Two Popes movie review: Anthony Hopkins-Jonathan Pryce Netflix film is a charming affirmation of faith
The Two Popes shows a Catholic Church at the crossroads, and the choices it must make to stay relevant to 1.2 billion people around the globe.
An early exchange in The Two Popes sees the cardinals Jorge Bergoglio and Benedict Ratzinger in a washroom; Pope John Paul II has just passed away and all the cardinals have gathered in Vatican City to elect his successor. As Bergoglio washes his hands, Benedict asks him of the tune he’s whistling: “What hymn is that?” “Oh, it’s ‘Dancing Queen’,” Bergoglio replies. “‘Dancing Queen?’” Benedict asks, at a loss. “Yes, by ABBA,” Bergoglio says. “ABBA?” Benedict, who clearly doesn’t know about the pop quartet, wonders.
It’s an interaction that quickly establishes the difference between the two men, both destined to be popes.
In the scene that follows — featuring red-robed cardinals walking down the stately white marble halls of the Vatican, shot with symmetrical precision — their differences become even more apparent. Benedict represents the old guard, a watch-guard of dogma who thinks the Catholic Church must remain unchanging in a changing-beyond-all-recognition world. Bergoglio, on the other hand, represents reform, a spiritual leader of and among the people.
And yet, as becomes evident over the course of the events depicted in the film, for all their differences in personality, ideology and outlook, Benedict and Bergoglio are also bound by their love for and submission to God.
The bulk of The Two Popes’ narrative is spread over two days, with the events that preceded and followed those two days (namely, the ascension of first Ratzinger and then Bergoglio as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013, respectively) acting as bookends. The two days in question occur when a disillusioned Bergoglio, years after the election of Benedict as Pope, decides to turn in his resignation. He meets with the Pope in Rome, and is whisked away to his summer residence, where Benedict entirely avoids accepting or discussing Bergoglio's resignation.
Instead, they walk through the gardens, discussing Bergoglio's position on various issues (same sex marriage, celibacy for the clergy, punitive measures against priests found guilty of sexual abuse) — all of which Pope Benedict disagrees with, incidentally. Over the course of the evening, however, they begin to find common ground, each speaking of how they communicate with God, and of receiving their calling.
Their meeting occurs at a time when the Church is mired in controversy; the fall-out of the “Vati-Leaks” scandal intrudes on their time together, with Benedict being called away to Vatican City urgently. Benedict and Bergoglio's conversations continue there, with each sharing deeply shameful chapters from their past, before Benedict tells him why he won't accept his resignation: he wants to step down as Pope, and have Bergoglio succeed him.
It's a historic moment: Popes don't resign, although Benedict points to Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1415 as precedents for papal renunciation. Amid Bergoglio’s protestations, Benedict insists that a change of the guard is due.
By the time the men part, there is a genuine affection, an unlikely friendship that has sprung up between them, partly due to Bergoglio's charm but also because Benedict sees in the younger man something he feels he has recently lost: a closeness with God.
Did anyone expect Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce to be anything less than spellbinding in their roles? Hopkins plays Benedict by combining physical frailness with a steely resolve; the Pope's health may be failing, but his convictions about the Church's role are not. Pryce’s Bergoglio is the perfect foil to Hopkins’ Benedict, a man of the people, at ease with himself and able to make friends wherever he goes. Each so different, each so compelling as they spar, then bond.
Even aside from the performances, The Two Popes is an unadulterated pleasure to watch. Every frame is designed with care: sunlight falling into a room just so, the geometry of how characters are positioned within a space. The Vatican sequences, in particular, are gorgeous: the electing of the Pope brings together colour, sound and movement like a choreographed routine that would please even the most exacting of aesthetes. Writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody) and director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) turn the former’s play into a piece of cinematic art, while also imbuing it with deep reserves of humour, emotion and warmth.
The Two Popes doesn’t shy away from the Church’s many failures, or its gross role in perpetuating child sexual abuse. By placing these deeply contrasting personalities together, with their imagined conversations, The Two Popes shows a Catholic Church at the crossroads, and the choices it must make to stay relevant to 1.2 billion people around the globe. The film’s release comes just months after the former pontiff wrote a letter expressing his views on the problem of sexual abuse among the clergy, which was seen as a challenge to Pope Francis’ position, and the differences in their respective ideologies haven’t exactly faded away.
The Two Popes, however, chooses to end on a hopeful note; a quiet, charming film that’s a reaffirmation of faith.
The Two Popes is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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