Sometimes, the best thing about a film is just watching great performers do what they do best. I imagine that is part of the reason why Netflix’s The Two Popes got such a positive reaction at the Telluride Film Festival. Two of Britain’s finest actors come together to retell a piece of recent religious history. Anthony Hopkins and Jonatha Pryce play Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis respectively in a film that explores their uneasy relationship. It’s essentially a film showing two old white dudes having a back and forth about religion. On paper, it shouldn’t work but it turns out to be unexpectedly engaging. And, I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a film that I was necessarily going to watch despite the positive reaction it got. I love both actors but the story just seemed a bit much. Considering what we know about the Catholic Church, it all just seemed a bit too twee.
The Two Popes opens in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is called to Vatican City to elect a new pope. Bergoglio, representing a different approach for the Catholic Church, gets the second-largest number votes but, ultimately, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is elected. The new Pope Benedict XVI is a traditionalist and represented a conservative viewpoint. 7 years after Pope Benedict XVI was elected, the Catholic Church is embroiled with scandal thanks to leaks from the Vatican that exposed corruption and cover-ups. Pope Benedict had lost the trust of the people and was publicly accused of being involved in the cover-up. Bergoglio is summoned to Vatican City to meet with the pope.
What unfolds, is a sometimes tense, sometimes funny, sometimes emotional, and often frustrating exchange between the two religious men. Ending with both men revealing parts of themselves and the pair coming to an uneasy truce. It’s an obviously fictionalised and idealised imagining of what a conversation between the pair would have been like. The film skims over a lot of the darker elements of the film in favour of the positive messages. We get flashbacks of Bergoglio’s life and what led him to join the Chuch. These sections pay particular attention to the Argentine military dictatorship. A period which followed Bergoglio throughout his life and almost destroyed his reputation. What isn’t discussed is Ratzinger’s past as a member of the Hitler youth and the German military.
Some moments are utterly frustrating in this film. I know that the flashbacks are supposed to give us context to Bergoglio’s reticence to be Pope but they only succeed in slightly ruining the pace. The film flies when the two veteran actors are on screen so the endless flashbacks really take the focus away from where you want it to be. Then there’s the fact that the film glosses over some of the more controversial elements of the Catholic Church. A scene in which Pope Benedict XVI confesses to covering up incidents of child abuse plays out in silence. This is clearly a device to convey the privacy of confession and the personal nature of guilt. However, it just feels as though it’s attempting to whitewash over it. As though the audience has no right or reason to be presented with the facts. It does feel a little cowardly.
What helps make this film work is the mix of two great leading performances and a really sharp script. The screenplay comes to us from Anthony McCarten who was also responsible for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody. So, he has some experience with this type of thing. What the script does well, is to give plenty of time to see the two men in a head-to-head. It gives the two actors the best chance to really do what they do best. And both men are doing fine work here. Anthony Hopkins is great as Benedict XVI. He is severe and steadfast in his belief. He has the air of someone who has never had to explain themselves or their actions before. In the opening of the film, Ratzinger struts around schmoozing the other cardinals like the greatest politician. He knows how to work people and he knows what he wants. Jonathan Pryce absolutely flies as Bergoglio. He seems completely at home in a cardinals uniform and he brings a human vulnerability to the religious figure.
The two men are engaged in a careful battle of wits that is filled with tension, empathy, and a need for forgiveness. The dialogue sees the power shifting constantly between the two men as see the potential for Catholicism to move from a more traditional standpoint to a more liberal one. The screenplay also gives plenty of moments of humanity where we see the men behind the religious dress. Ratzinger discusses his love of an Austrian cop show about a crime-solving German Shepard and the time he was given the chance to sing at Abbey Road. Bergoglio has his backstory, his love of football, and his connection with ordinary people. The film makes sure that the two men seem relatable on some level and shows them as fallible as the rest of us.
The greatest scene of the film comes at its very end. We see the new Pope Francis and his predecessor enjoying a beer and watching Germany play Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. It’s sweet and really lets the two actors have some fun. Although, at the same time, there is something so fantastical about it that it feels wrong. This film has so many great moments and such great performances that it should have been an absolute hit. Yet, certain elements of it just feel out-of-place. It never quite hits as hard as it should and it never feels completely grounded in reality. Watch it to see two acting giants bounce off each other but don’t expect the film to go too deep.