Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes won’t restore one’s faith in the Catholic Church. But it will thrill audiences with its invigorating debate about an institution in crisis. In short, it will preserve one’s faith in moviegoing. The Two Popes is truly the most pleasant surprise of 2019.
Fans of The Crown in particular will want to catch The Two Popes. (Conveniently, devotees of the Netflix series will be happy to find The Two Popes on the streaming service next month.) Like Peter Morgan’s riveting The Crown, Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes interrogates the resilience of a long-standing institution. The Catholic Church, like the British Monarchy, is one of the most powerful establishments worldwide—but the power is waning. And as with each episode of The Crown, The Two Popes focuses on one pivotal chapter in the institution’s fight for survival.
Meirelles delivers on the promise of his 2002 breakthrough City of God and 2005’s The Constant Gardener (the year’s best film) with The Two Popes. It’s an enlightening and hugely entertaining work of art. The film is a deceptively simple two hander starring Jonathan Pryce (The Wife) as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins (Westworld) as Pope Benedict XVI. The year is 2012 and Pope Benedict’s head is growing weary of wearing the papal hat after a few years. He wants to woo Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, to succeed him. It’s an unusual request, but perhaps one of the most vital decisions in the church’s history.
The Two Popes intercuts this 2012 meeting between the holy men with the days leading up to Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany, being elected to the papacy following the death of the progressive Pope John Paul II. The pundits and commentators in the archival newsreels remind audiences that this election marked a significant decision for the church: continue forward or step back. The conservative Ratzinger hopes to realign the church with tradition, and he doesn’t hide his desire to lead the backwards march. Bergoglio, meanwhile, is a reluctant leader. He doesn’t actively seek the papacy, but every scene The Two Popes depicts him as both the ideal and natural choice. He embodies the spirit of the church’s teachings while staying in touch with the people.
Without sermonizing or grandstanding, the film considers the role of institutionalised religion in the contemporary age. One doesn’t need to know much about the Catholic Church or the Popes to grasp the sharp contrast between the two men. Sure, there are references to divorce, homosexuality, women, celibacy, and other topics on which the Catholic Church has problematic views. But the approach is both spiritual and secular: it’s not so much a question of faith. The Two Popes is a enlightening essay on leadership and what it means to be a citizen of this world as it evolves.
The film sets everything up nicely in a humorous exchange in which the two future Pontiffs meet in a bathroom. Ratzinger addresses Bergoglio in Latin and asks what hymn the Argentine whistles. Bergoglio laughs, “Dancing Queen.” What a hip guy.
But in deftly shifting between periods and pitting the two Popes against one another in a riveting tête-a-tête, the film creates a dialogue between the two directions in which the Church may proceed. With one man, the route is the past. The other is the future. Bergoglio’s strength is that he believes in change. He knows its virtues having resisted it in the past. He’s learned the tragedies that occur when one holds onto tradition for tradition’s sake.
The film offers another layer of flashbacks as the younger Bergoglio (Juan Minujín) undergoes his spiritual transformation. In the midst of Argentina’s “dirty wars,” he opts to protect the institution of the church rather than the men who lead it. The consequences are dire. He learns the importance of reading the cultural pulse and listening to the faithful. He comes to understand that protecting the people who fill the church and preserving the institution is the same act. When the film cuts back to Pryce telling the story, emotional and human in contrast to the stoic Hopkins, one sees how these men approach the papacy from entirely different worldviews.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten wrote three of Best Actor Oscar winners in the past five years and he could easily do it again for Pryce. After Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, and (in the Academy’s opinion) Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, Pryce’s performance as the real-life figure is triumphant. His resemblance to Pope Francis is uncanny, but far better is the spirit of Christian charity he brings to life. This is a remarkably restrained performance. It’s full of life, vitality, humour, and compassion.
To see the actor prove his salt against the great Antony Hopkins is another treat. Hopkins hasn’t had a role this strong in years and he relishes it. There’s a cold reserve to his Benedict and timid yet thundering restraint in his composure. The man bottles everything in fearing change, yet he erupts when he detects fractures in the status quo. The way the performances play off one another is remarkable. As the holy men sit in the Sistine Chapel and debate the church’s future, one sees the entirety of the institution’s conundrum personified in the two actors. But Meirelles plays it all with light humour. These men are both friends and foes. One zinger invites another and the chemistry between Pryce and Hopkins is a comedic delight.
The details in Meirelles’s direction and in the film’s craftsmanship bring audiences into the intimacy of these sacred spaces. The immaculately crafted sets, particularly the Sistine Chapel, lend the film gravitas and authenticity. Of particular note are the rituals and behind the scenes action that are even more extravagant than at Buckingham Palace. Lensed gorgeously by Meirelles’s regular cinematographer César Charlone, the film bathes its settings in sumptuous natural light. The brilliance of the images evokes the spirituality of the churches and the men within them. But Meirelles also highlights the excess and opulence that makes the Catholic Church alienating and outmoded.
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes also humanizes the men while objectively interrogating the office they uphold. The interplay of change versus tradition breathes in every element of the film. Benedict travels in chauffeured cars and private helicopters while Francis rides the bus or walks. The elder Pope pays little heed to the servants in his massive summer home. Francis befriends a gardener and receives some aromatic oregano. Shoes, football, pizza, and Fanta illustrate how easily one can be both holy and part of this world. These nuances in the characterization are perhaps the film’s greatest asset as they help The Two Popes transcend religion. This film isn’t just for the faithful. Whether aesthetic, agnostic, or a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, this debate is bigger than any institution.