The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce — that’s two reasons to buy a ticket, right there — as Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis I, and it is wildly entertaining, so now you have a third reason too. True, it does, as others have noted, shy away from directly tackling the most difficult questions currently facing the church. But is that really the film you want to see? Rather than this affectionate and literate bromance that does, in fact, nudge us towards the bigger picture, but slyly? Also, it is brilliantly comic. Pope Benedict, for instance, doesn’t get jokes but does try to tell one, which no one else gets. ‘It’s a German joke, so it doesn’t have to be funny,’ he then explains. I laughed my head off. Unquestionably, it is the most papal fun I’ve had in years.
The Two Popes is directed by Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, City of God) and written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything), based on his own stage play of 2017. It is ‘inspired by true events’ and explores the resignation of Pope Benedict, formerly Austrian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and his replacement by Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the current Pope Francis. My word, that sounds dreary, but I promise you it isn’t.
The conceit, which may or may not be preposterous, imagines meetings between the two when Bergoglio has arrived at the Pope’s summer palace with, in fact, no thought of being elevated to the papacy as he wishes to resign.
Benedict is fiercely conservative and does not hold with moving with the times. ‘Marry the spirit of the age and you become a widow in the next,’ he says. Bergoglio is much more progressive and is unhappy with the way the church has dealt with the child abuse scandals. ‘I am a salesman for a product I cannot endorse,’ is how he puts it. Bergoglio loves Abba and soccer and tango but, just as Benedict doesn’t get jokes, he doesn’t get popular culture either, yet he has been equipped with a Fitbit. ‘Don’t stop now, keep moving,’ it is always clamoring, so we know what side the film is on.
It is visually sumptuous. The opening, set during the conclave of 2005, and featuring all the red-clad cardinals, is as wonderfully choreographed and stunning as anything from The Handmaid’s Tale — that’s what it put me in mind of — but set cheekily to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. Also, the Vatican has been magnificently and opulently recreated, especially the Sistine Chapel. But essentially this is a showcase for Hopkins and Pryce and their Pope-off, if you like. The two characters are opposites on paper. Benedict, previously an academic theologian, has never ‘lived life’, as he admits, while Bergoglio, a Jesuit, has always worked among the poor. But both, it turns out, are haunted by sin. For Bergoglio, it’s his role in Argentina’s Dirty War, as shown in flashback, while for Benedict it is the church’s handling of child abuse claims and his failure to deal with problem priests. Or is it? Bergoglio hears his confession but the sound drops away, so we’re never entirely sure. Weird, and maybe a cop-out, but this would be an entirely different proposition if it got too deeply into that, and went beyond the sly nudges.
The film opts, ultimately, for a fond, odd-couple vibe, although it is strangely imbalanced. Why Bergoglio’s back story and not Benedict’s? Why do crowds shout ‘Nazi!’ at Benedict? You’ll have to look that up for yourself. And it is static and talky with iffy accents. Hopkins, God bless him, mostly resorts to sounding Welsh. But he and Pryce are a wonderful double act, capable of being serious but playful simultaneously, which is a phenomenal skill, and there are the brilliantly comic moments. Especially enjoyable is one of the Popes trying to book his own plane flight, and also one watching his favorite Austrian TV show which involves a German shepherd that is a detective. (It exists. I checked.) Is it worth the price of a ticket or your Netflix sub? Is the Pope… you know the rest.