I think it’s safe to say this is not your average buddy movie. And while that statement is certainly a thinly veiled attempt at humor, in many ways “The Two Popes” has quite a bit of common with those kinds of films. It just happens to take place within the boundaries of the Catholic church and the buddies happen to be Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis.
“The Two Popes” is such an odd yet thoroughly fascinating creation. In one sense it’s an enlightening behind the scenes look at one of Catholicism’s most sacred traditions. It also resembles a biopic spending big chunks of time digging into the backstory of (specifically) Pope Francis (aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio). Yet it’s very much a ‘what-if’ dramedy about the unorthodox friendship between a firm-footed conservative (Benedict) and a loose progressive (Francis).
Director Fernando Meirelles, working from a dense and colorful screenplay by Anthony McCarten, infuses his film with a visual style that adds an unexpected vibrancy. Sometimes it looks at its subject from a documentarian’s point of view, but other times Meirelles employs an energetic assortment of flourishes often bathed in bright light and vivid colors. At times it makes you forget that you’re simply watching two elderly men talk.
The perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce do most of the heavy lifting capturing an odd couple-like vibe that’s both honest and at times really funny. We first meet them following the death of Pope John Paul II. They are part of a conclave of 115 Cardinals gathering at the Vatican to choose a new pontiff. The process is shown to be as much political as it is spiritual. In the end German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) gets the required 77 votes beating the prospected frontrunner Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce).
Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI while Cardinal Bergoglio heads back to Argentina to continue his work among the impoverished. Seven years pass and the Vatican is embroiled in the knotty Vati-Leaks scandal. Meanwhile Bergoglio has prepared to retire but he can’t get Benedict to respond to his letters. Frustrated, he books a flight to Rome but before he can leave he is summoned to the Pope’s summer home at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo.
This begins a steady series of discussions that move from the gardens of the summer palace to Vatican City. Their talks start seriously as pointed debates on Catholic dogma and the direction of the church. But as their icy relationship warms we get more playful back-and-forths about things like the music of ABBA and World Cup soccer. Soon a true friendship blooms and their conversations turn deeply personal and confessional. This opens the door for several of the film’s lengthy but compelling flashbacks.
“The Two Popes” begins with the “inspired by true events” tag but a ton of artistic license is clearly taken. It works though thanks to the film’s ability to make every encounter we have with its two titular characters feel organic and true. The two veteran actors bring plenty gravitas but just as much humor and humanity. And while the movie is a bit talky, you can’t help but be pulled in by its heart regardless of your position on faith.
VERDICT – 4 STARS