In another life, I swear I’d be Catholic. Of course, I’m too much of a dirty sodomite to get away with it in this life, but something about the sheer pageantry of it all feels more like drag than RuPaul’s Drag Race does sometimes. Yet, behind closed doors, secrecy pervades the walls of Vatican City, with the Pope and his daily on-goings remaining a mystery to the general public, at least until recently. Pope Francis, having taken over the papacy from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 following his resignation, has made great strides in becoming a “Pope for the People,” rejecting the idolatry and pageantry of Popes past in lieu of being more “Priest-like,” as ideally as he can. His openness, both in how he addresses his congregants, as well as the general liberalness of his viewpoints as Pope, have garnered great controversy from more conservative Catholics but has reshaped how the world views the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, even if the strict adherence to tradition and the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against a number of priests still plague the exodus of many followers of the faith.
The Two Popes, the new film from Fernando Meirelles, doesn’t seek to paint a grand picture of the process of the reform of the Catholic Church, but rather seeks to paint a picture of the push and pull involved with taking the first steps in doing so, all focused between the conversation of two old men.
The year is 2012. The Vatican is inundated with a corruption scandal involving money laundering, the cover-up of sexual assault by priests, as well as the blackmailing of homosexual priests from those outside the church. From the outside, the Vatican’s image is perhaps worse off than it ever has been, and within the walls of Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) is having a crisis of identity as Pope. He calls upon Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, soon to be known as Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), to visit him in Rome. Benedict, staunch German conservative with a flair for the dramatic, has oft butted heads with Francis, a humble Argentinian liberal with a very different idea of how the Catholic Church should be run. Yet, having nearly lost the Papacy during the 2005 Conclave after the death of Pope John Paul II, and the conflict of identity following the scandal, Benedict seeks to vet Francis should his papacy soon end, as he knows that the Conclave would vote unanimously on his election as Pope.
It’s difficult to concisely describe the setup to The Two Popes, but the end product is exceedingly simple: it’s a series of conversations between two men with vastly different viewpoints on life and faith, with two of the finest actors of their generation in near-perfect form. It’s an intimate and sympathetic look at the struggles that come with immense power and what different personalities decide to do with it. The film, written by Academy Award Nominee Anthony McCarten, humanizes the Papacy in ways that no narrative media has done. The film is open season in both sympathizing with and criticizing both men through their strides and transgressions as faith leaders and humans alike. It’s a story that champions accountability in sin and the fundamental Catholic value of forgiveness in the eyes of God. Whether you as a viewer forgive either man for their sins is up to you, as the film leaves that open, but it’s a compassionate screenplay that breaks down the walls of the religious hierarchy to reveal men made of flesh and bone, just like the rest of us.
McCarten succeeds wonderfully in painting the strained picture of the relationships between conservative and liberal individuals and how it’s perfectly possible that, despite near-universal disagreement on most subjects, they can respect each other as individuals and still remain companions. This being said, this isn’t Catholic Green Book by any means, as the lines of conservative and liberal are drawn within the confines of the Catholic Church, which definitely does not reflect the vast marketplace of opinion that is found in the general public. Francis, while seen as a liberal reformist within the Church, is still considered an objective conservative by the outside public, questioning many ideals that modern progressives wouldn’t even bat an eye in supporting, such as abortion, LGBT rights, and divorce. Still, there’s an understanding from McCarten that within context, Francis’s views are a sign of progress within the church, and can still be painted as a radical reformist from the eyes of the church, without having to whitewash the objective truths about him. The film doesn’t seek to advocate for something akin to black people seeking to relate and reconcile with members of the KKK (unlike some films released this year), but rather seeks to show that general ideological disagreements between individuals, like perhaps ones within your own family, don’t always have to end in alienation and desertion of a relationship.
Complementing McCarten’s screenplay are two of the finest performances seen in a very long time on screen. It’s no secret that Pryce and Hopkins are regarded as two of the most lauded actors of their time, and for good reason. The life that each actor brings to their respective Pope is wonderfully charming and very deep in the humanization of their beings that doesn’t often get accounted for when documenting the Holy See often. While their chemistry is wonderful and Hopkins gives an excellent performance as Benedict XVI, The Two Popes is Pryce’s show as Francis. It is so good, that if you were to tell me that Netflix somehow kidnapped Pope Francis and forced him to act in this film under the guise of being Jonathan Pryce, I wouldn’t doubt you for a single second. That’s how good he is. Pryce brings the gentleness of Francis’s piety and humility to very pleasant fruition but doesn’t stray from allowing the character to be ugly and vulnerable when he needs to be. There’s a fire within his eyes that shows the desire to make a change within the Catholic Church, and for the world to know the Church as he does, but there’s also a hesitancy to every action he makes for fear he would betray his own values as a humble Argentinian priest seeking a life of salvation from his past sin. It’s a performance of a lifetime and Pryce approaches it with the utmost understanding of McCarten’s intentions for the character.
Directed by City of God and The Constant Gardener director Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes works best as a quiet, intimate conversation piece with its “fly-on-the-wall” approach to the material. It’s an oddly cinéma vérité style of narrative filmmaking that surprisingly works within the context of the film. Unfortunately, there are moments when Meirelles plays his hand a bit too aggressively in the sometimes frantic editing of a slow-moving scene, a tactic which works well within his previous films, but not quite as well in such an inward-facing drama. The film also features quite a few flashback scenes to Francis’s early days as a priest during Argentina’s Dirty War of the mid-1970s. These sequences, while strong in portraying Francis’s transgressions as a young priest, take the audience out of the far more compelling story of simple conversations between two elderly men. Had the film approached Francis’s past in one extended sequence, as opposed to unfolding the story intermittently throughout the film, perhaps it would’ve been the better for it. Meirelles’s trademark gritty directing style does work quite well during these scenes, specifically in the earlier scenes shot in 4:3 black-and-white (making me long for a gritty 4:3 black-and-white Meirelles period crime drama), yet these scenes feel inconsistent with the rest of the film that is so arresting in doing so little.
Regardless, this doesn’t make The Two Popes feel any less radical of a film, no matter how much it may look like a shoo-in for the AARP Movies for Grownups Best Picture award (for which it probably will win too). It’s hard to make something like the Catholic Church feel modern, but Meirelles and McCarten, despite not hitting every note pitch-perfectly, do an exceptional job at humanizing perhaps the most inaccessible and alien parts of such a large, strange form of religious leadership. Hopkins and, especially, Pryce are absolute revelations in their respective roles, which, for two actors who could stop working any time they please and still be regarded as legends of their craft, feels extraordinary. The Two Popes is going to change anyone’s mindset on the Catholic Church, but hopefully, it can expand upon the preconceptions that we hold about the humanity we discard so easily when dealing with individuals of intense notoriety. Perhaps, that’s the sort of sympathy we need to re-learn as a society…to a certain extent.
In limited theaters beginning November 27th, 2019.
Available for streaming on December 20th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.