Courtesy of Netflix
The acclaimed director of “City of God,” Fernado Merelles has set his sights on the Catholic Church with his new docudrama “The Two Popes.” Written with a lighthearted touch by Anthony McCarten, “The Two Popes” follows the honest relationship between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) that resulted in Benedict’s strange retirement and Bergoglio taking his place in 2013.
Considering Benedict is a conversative and Bergoglio a liberal, “The Two Popes” seems like an odd way to make a buddy film. While Merelles doesn’t really dig deep into the countless allegations against the Church, including the sexual assault cover-ups that tarnished Benedict’s legacy, Pryce and Hopkins anchor the film and allow a narrative primarily about religion and politics to be appealing, and it seems specifically tailored for older Academy voters.
Now if you missed the unorthodox circumstances behind the recent papal change, then “The Two Popes” has you covered. The film begins in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II’s death, as the cardinals gather to vote his replacement. Merelles assembles a smorgasbord of clips, and montages to help navigate the scope of the process in a fun and unique way. Eventually, following some aggressive campaigning, Cardinal Ratzinger quickly lands the gig.
Bergoglio returns to his life in Buenos Aires, as the years tick by, and in 2012 decides to fly to Rome and request his retirement. John Paul, on the other hand, has a different agenda and brings Bergoglio to his home and spar on a wide range of controversial subjects from homosexuality to pre-marital sex (ideals debated heavily in Catholicism.) Despite their constant bantering (“I disagree with everything you’ve said”) they keep the dialogue open, leading to some riveting exchanges on whether the church can become more progressive (“Change is compromise.”)
Merelles frames these intellectual showdowns with dramatic angles and intuitive reaction shots, allowing “The Two Popes” to rise above its narrative shortcomings (for example, allowing Benedict’s history to seemingly go untouched). From there, “The Two Popes” tumbles down an overlong flashback sequence revolving around Bergoglio’s early days during an Argentina dictatorship and his questionable role in the government. These black and white sequences arrive late in the game and clash with the bright and playful energy which precedes them. It’s almost like the filmmakers lost sight of which film they wanted to make.
Regardless, Pryce and Hopkins are the selling point here, and they give “The Two Popes” enough dazzle to keep you smiling. Their love for soccer and pizza, as well as their willingness to sit down and listen to the other. The film is also a stark reminder of how setting aside differences and conversing with the other side can produce honest change. In these politically divisive times, we could all learn something from these religious leaders worldview.