Skip to content

Review: The Two Popes

November 29, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world in 2013 when he stepped down as head of the Catholic Church, becoming the first pope to resign since the 1400s.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as the successor to Pope John Paul II in 2005, and was chosen by the church due to his standing as a staunch conservative who would stop the Vatican from moving in a more progressive direction, beating out Jorge Bergoglio, a more forward-thinking cardinal from Buenos Aires who sought to make reforms within the church.

But as fate would have it, Bergoglio would be elected Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, shortly after his resignation. This story is recounted in the Netflix film The Two Popes, a dialogue-heavy drama from director Fernando Meirelles which imagines a series of engaging conversations between the two men.

The film unfolds as Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) makes his plans to step down amidst a growing scandal revealing the extent of clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) comes to terms with the fact that he will likely be chosen to replace him. Bergoglio has travelled to Vatican City to personally hand in his resignation as cardinal, becoming disenfranchised with the direction that the church is going in, but he is viewed by many as next in line for the papacy, prompting him to rethink his own retirement plans.

When Pope Benedict confides him in that he wants to leave the Throne of St. Peter, Bergoglio ends up trying to convince him not to step down, worried that the break from hundreds of years of tradition will further damage the church. Benedict’s main concern is that the church will move too hastily away from the dogmatic traditions of the past, and asserts at one point that he has made his decision to leave the papacy final now that he thinks Bergoglio will no longer be in the running as his replacement.

Throughout the film, we watch as these two faith leaders eat pizza, drink Fanta, and argue about and discuss the best way forward for the church. Hopkins and Pryce deliver uncanny portrayals of Benedict and Francis, and their respectful and finely tuned performances perfectly capture the differences in both ideology and temperament between the two men. The former is a stern, almost paternalistic figure who is unshaken in his drive to maintain order within the ranks of the church, and the latter is laid-back and down to earth, often speaking with a twinkle in his eye as he lightly challenges the more rigid elements of the church’s teachings.

The film features a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who has become the go-to writer for biopics over the past few years, having received a trio of Oscar nominations for his scripts behind The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. McCarten’s screenplay here avoids many of the usual biopic tropes by playing out mainly as a chamber piece, the majority of which revolves around private conversations between the two figures at its centre. The back-and-forth banter between them offers plenty of room for serious discussion, along with a surprising amount of humorous moments.

Due to the intimate camerawork, use of actual news clips to add historical context to the proceedings, and the close proximity between the actors and their real life counterparts, at times it feels like we are watching a fly on the wall documentary, an illusion that makes The Two Popes compelling viewing. It’s respectful of the Catholic faith, while also being critical of the Vatican’s move to cover-up sexual abuse within its ranks, and acknowledging the need for the church to move forward somewhat on social issues in order to retain its relevance in the modern world.

For example, Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” stance on homosexuality, while not outright acceptance and a far cry from the Vatican recognizing same-sex marriages, is still a step forward for the Catholic Church, and an improvement upon Pope Benedict’s refusal to budge on this issue. Filled with wonderful and challenging moments between these two differing thought leaders as they strive to find common ground, as well as an amusing witty streak that adds some levity to it, The Two Popes is both enjoyable and thought provoking, carried by excellent performances from Hopkins and Pryce.

The Two Popes is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of December 20th.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: