“The Two Popes” Movie Review


     Director Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes” brings to life one of the most talked about transitions of power within the Catholic Church in history.  Whereas the election of a new pope would typically be met with both overwhelming support of the electing body, as well as endearment from the religion’s followers around the world, the process in 2005 was marred by a growing liberal faction within the church who looked to change many of the outdated views still sanctioned by the Vatican, including stances on homosexuality and the celibacy of priests.  Nonetheless, the larger conservative group prevailed and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected, choosing Benedict as his pontifical name.

     Portrayed in the film by Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict was a staunch representative of the church’s conservative doctrine and defended these ideals at all costs.  But with changes in thinking as we enter a time in society where cultural sensitivity and inclusion are paramount, the church and its leader faced a crossroads.  As the oldest pope elected since the 1700s, Benedict felt his ability to speak to God waning, all the while watching as the church was consistently criticized for failing to adapt with the modern world.  Scandal besieged the church at every level, leaving Benedict no choice but to make a historical move designed to rebuild the religion’s damaged reputation.

     In 2012, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, had planned to meet with the Pope to ask for permission to retire.  Bergoglio, an Argentinian, was long known as a leader within the religion’s liberal think tank and was clearly Benedict’s loudest critic.  When the two of them meet at the Vatican, the initial conversations reflect their respective positions within the church.  Bergoglio is respectful, while Benedict is often crass and foreboding of any potential changes in the age old philosophies the church has never wavered on.  But as these conversations progress, it becomes clear Benedict will not allow Bergoglio to retire for reasons he only explains as for the good of the church.

     Adapted from his stage play “The Pope”, screenwriter Anthony McCarten imagines the continuing interactions between both men as a relationship that naturally progresses into what becomes like two everyday guys sitting together and simply talking.  We already know the issues they have significant differences on, but where can they find common ground?  In doing so, Meirelles installs a series of flashbacks to bring light to the difficult life Bergoglio has led in his journey to becoming a Cardinal.  It is these experiences where he develops many of his modern stances on the Catholic religion’s various moral codes, and with each conversation it seems as though his skills as a convincing orator are leading Benedict down a path of potential partnership.

     With the film being structured around two men verbally grappling over religious doctrine and the future of the Catholic Church, the success of “The Two Popes” hinges on two important aspects: the performances by the actors and the method in which the settings are committed to film.  Regardless of religious affiliation or belief, an audience must feel every scene is compelling, while also visually stimulating.  And that’s where the film really excels.  Meirelles and his cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, ensure these two legendary actors occupy some of the most gorgeous and colorful settings you will see in a film this year, including a full scale set recreating the Sistine Chapel, as well as other notable landmarks found throughout Rome.  Not to be ignored are the scenes shot in Buenos Aires, notable as the poor areas, where Bergoglio had served for his entire career, significantly contrast with the palace like confines of the Vatican.

     Both Pryce and Hopkins bring forth some of the most memorable and brilliant work of their storied careers.  And much like the talented work turned in by the makeup artists who worked on “Bombshell”, the team here transforms the actors into an astounding likeness of Bergoglio and Benedict which helps create a sense of authenticity in every frame of the film.  Though the filmmakers chose not to utilize de-aging technology, as their Netflix counterpart “The Irishman” did, in order to have Pryce play the younger version of his character, Juan Minujin fills in nicely with a crucial performance necessary to communicate to the audience the gut wrenching and murderous history his people endured while he was a young priest. 

     The exceptional work by the filmmakers has brought this incredible story to a medium where people can really understand the hardline politics at play within a religious organization desperately trying to find the right leadership during uncertain times.  And even today with the blame game continuing as various scandals have continued to rock the foundation of one of the world’s oldest institutions, many of these issues still remain divisive within the highest ranks of the church. But isn’t it comforting to know the two sides are at the table talking like a couple of regular fellas?  It’s often amazing how much can get done over pizza, beer, and the bonding that comes with cheering on your favorite sports team.  Life long friendships are born, ideas are exchanged, and we come up with something we can all live with.  GRADE: A