The Two Popes movie review: God bless Netflix for ending 2019 with this heavenly film
The Two Popes
Director - Fernando Meirelles
Cast - Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce
The arrival of films like The Two Popes calls for both a celebration, and quiet introspection. Why isn’t every film as good? Must we suffer through interminable mediocrity before we are rewarded for our penance? Can Netflix be forgiven for the sins of Michael Bay?
Not since Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs have the singular voices of a director and a writer united with such wisdom, wit, and visual flair. Written and directed by Anthony McCarten and Fernando Meirelles, respectively, The Two Popes is a triumphant capper to Netflix’s unofficial trilogy of awards contenders, following Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. And it might just be the best of the lot.
Watch The Two Popes trailer here
But neither of the two men at the centre of the film would approve of a comparison such as this. The Two Popes is about many things – the transfer of power, the relevance of religion, and the importance of pizza as a unifier – but it is mostly a film about two lonely old men, finding in each other the companion that they so desperately desire.
The Two Popes is framed around three pivotal meetings between Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), during three important moments in not just their personal lives, but also for the Catholic Church at large. Scandal has erupted during the Papacy of Benedict XVI, and faced with a crippling loss of faith, the conservative German seeks the advice of the progressive Argentine destined to succeed him on the Chair of Saint Peter.
The conversations are cracking, featuring two performers operating at the peak of their powers. Neither outshines the other, although Hopkins occasionally lapses into his famous staccato outbursts. A flash of anger in Hopkins’ tone has more force than any physical fight between Batman and Superman; a glimpse of warmth in Pryce’s voice is more affecting than a million saccharine romances put together.
As critical as McCarten’s script often seems of Ratzinger’s Papacy, it isn’t entirely dismissive of his achievements as a political leader. The Catholic Church has witnessed more than its share of controversies, most of them perpetuated by small men playing God. Surrounded by allegations of corruption, child abuse, and a growing obsolescence, Benedict XVI was thoroughly unprepared for the demands of the job, or so it seems. “The first qualification for a leader is not wanting to be a leader,” one Cardinal tells Bergoglio, subtly hinting that he should be the one leading them, and not the old-fashioned German.
But as serious as some of its themes are, Meirelles never allows his film to be consumed by the pomposity that a lot of the characters positively thrive in. The exchanges between Ratzinger and Bergoglio are bursting with humour as they debate about their conflicting ideologies and philosophies, and indeed, their understanding of God and Christianity.
Their first meeting takes place in a restroom. Bergoglio walks in humming ABBA’s Dancing Queen. An inquisitive Ratzinger, washing his hands, innocently asks, “What hymn is that, Cardinal?” In another scene later on, while Ratzinger is expressing his desire to retire from the Papacy, the Fitbit on his wrist, seemingly blessed with the comic timing of Charlie Chaplin, bleats, “Don’t stop now, keep moving!”
Meirelles uses archival footage, still photographs, and news clips to bring a kinetic, City of God-style energy to the proceedings. He films flashbacks to Bergoglio’s life as a young priest in Argentina – scenes through which the filmmaker makes valuable statements about modern politics – in glorious black-and-white. On paper, it’s a two-hander, but there’s no doubt that the filmmaker’s sympathies lie with Bergoglio; his simplicity, his selflessness, and his rejection of archaic ideas.
The Two Popes is ultimately a film about guilt and redemption. Both Ratzinger and Bergoglio have made mistakes in their lives; they’ve compromised on their principles; they’ve served masters they don’t believe in. And it is a testament to Meirelles’ skills as a filmmaker that he manages to see beneath all the pageantry, and find the humanity within. Ratzinger and Bergoglio clash, but they also bond over pizza; they have fundamental disagreements, but they also dance the tango; they argue, but they wouldn’t dream of watching the World Cup final with anyone but each other. They’re men of God, but they’re men.