The progressive Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and the conservative Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) in 'The Two Popes.' Photograph from Netflix
Culture Movies

Review: ‘The Two Popes’ is a blissful daydream

To watch two British actors at the twilight of their years but still at the peak of their game spar and ruminate and tease—what a treat! 
Andrew Paredes | Dec 23 2019

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Starring Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten is such a master of weaving speculative fiction out of a few strands of history, it’s hard to distinguish fact from fabrication. It’s startling, for instance, to learn that Winston Churchill did not in fact take the Tube to gauge public opinion on peace negotiations with Germany in Darkest Hour, or that Jane Hawking was not yet actually dating her soon-to-be husband Stephen when she learned of his motor neuron disease in The Theory of Everything.More on Netflix:

For most of The Two Popes’ 125-minute running time, McCarten spins more of that fools’ gold, imagining long, probing conversations between the conservative Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and progressive Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) while using the financial malfeasance and sex abuse scandals plaguing the German pope’s reign and the Argentine cardinal’s request to resign his post as the historical ballast to keep the film from floating off into the ether of daydreams. But, oh, what a blissful daydream it is: To watch two British actors at the twilight of their years but still at the peak of their game spar and ruminate and tease, as their characters determine the course of a faith that is central to the lives of a billion people.

Pryce plays the ebullient conversationalist to Hopkins' soft-spoken observer.

Real life could not have given McCarten more polar opposites to stage his two-hander. Pryce is the life-affirming presence; the people person who strikes up easy conversations with the Swiss Guard at the Vatican and the gardener at the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo; the cleric who believes that ministering to the faithful involves actually being among the faithful; the reformer who believes that the Church must evolve with the times. And where Pryce is the ebullient conversationalist who speaks four of the five languages spoken in the film, Hopkins is the hood-eyed observer who barely speaks above a whisper; the scholar who believes that the Church should become even more traditional in a world of shifting mores; the cautionary finger-wagger who declares that a Church wedded to a certain age is destined to be a widow in the next.

The intimacy of watching this film via your Netflix queue will actually coax out the warm-hearted humor McCarten sprinkles throughout his script

You would think that two old men using their philosophies as dueling swords would be a slog to watch, but I firmly believe that the intimacy of watching this film via your Netflix queue will actually coax out the warm-hearted humor McCarten sprinkles throughout his script. At different points, the two debate the merits of the Beatles over classical music and share a hastily ordered pizza, although a late-movie tango and a mid-credits soccer match might be straining credulity a bit.

Benedict’s confession is portrayed, for some reason, in an inaudible whisper, leaving his alleged conscription into the Hitler Youth and his time in the German infantry during World War II unaddressed.

I can’t help but attribute those last two flourishes to Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), who uses the opulence of the settings to illustrate the arc of the discussions. As the two men stroll around the gardens of the Castel Gandolfo and their argument grows more heated, the vegetation grows more and more lush; a confession from Cardinal Bergoglio uses the solemn grandeur of the Sistine Chapel for a backdrop. It is when the film cuts away to an extended flashback featuring the young Jorge Bergoglio (Juan Minujín, playing the only other substantial role in this two-man show) as he faces the scorn of his fellow Jesuits for not standing up to the brutality of the Argentinean military regime, that the film deflates and floats back down to earth.

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The Two Popes perhaps tips its hand too much, indicating where it wants its audience to ultimately lay their allegiance. It devotes a lot of screen time to the future Pope Francis’ guilt over the sins of omission he committed during Argentina’s Dirty War, giving him a clearer path to redemption. Meanwhile, Benedict’s confession is portrayed, for some reason, in an inaudible whisper, leaving his alleged conscription into the Hitler Youth and his time in the German infantry during World War II unaddressed. The film’s liberal leanings are driven home by footage of skirmishes along the world’s borders playing counterpoint to the ascension of Francis to the papal seat, cementing The Two Popes as a two-hour exercise in wish fulfillment. If two men with wildly opposing viewpoints can come together and chart the course for a major world religion, surely we can reach out to each other and resolve our differences. We can daydream, right?

 

The Two Popes is streaming on Netflix. 

Photographs from Netflix