The title of THE TWO POPES alone sounds makes it sound like a religious film that will pack a punch of witty jokes and feature the pontiffs prancing around the Vatican in a STEP BROTHERS-style manner. Or perhaps an intense showdown of robes between Pope Benedict XVI verse Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in a wrestling cage. While there is a lack of gold-laced boxing gloves, Fernando Meirelles directs an entertaining and subtly comedic battle of the popes in a biographical-drama based on McCarten’s 2017 play The Pope.
It is unsurprising to meet the two men during the initial 2005 election, as the two figures are found at crosshairs with each other: their contrasting conservatism and social liberalism become the core topic of debate during Benedict’s induction. However, the pace starts to pick up with Pope Benedict’s invitation to meet with Bergoglio at his retirement house in the summer of 2013. Bergoglio agrees, wishing to personally have his own papers signed off so he could retire in peace, but this is harder to achieve than he expects. Instead, the incumbent Pope enjoys a game of conversation swerving, musical frivolities and a damning stubbornness, with his own personal vendetta at play.
What the film circulates and builds upon is the cult of personality that surrounds the role of Pope and the papacy as a whole. Therein lies the balance of international celebrity, spiritual mediator and voice of religion; they must find the balance of commitment to faith with commentary on societal and cultural issues. Both Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Johnathan Pryce as Francis immerse themselves fully into the roles that take on their dictatorial Pope-ships in completely different ways, but there is no shying away from the power behind the role. While the film does not take on issues with religion in the way you would expect, it instead looks into the decisions, mistakes and regrets, mostly from Pope Francis’ past and how this has a profound impact on his decisions and ethics later on in life. This allows the audience to have a more educated and historical insight into their pasts, which doesn’t create a caveat for their morals but provides reasons for their future actions. This mainly stems from the latter half of the film when Bergoglio divulges to Benedict the regrets of his youth where he didn’t do more to protest the Junta regime in Argentina during the 1970s.
One of the core developmental issues in society today is that of tradition versus liberal reformation, and the impact this has upon culture and religion. The Catholic Church has had to give direct responses on topical subjects including homosexuality, politics, climate change and – of course – the discussion around the sex abuse cover-up controversy which the church has attempted to skirt over in recent years. The film is very tactful in its coverage of this, deciding to have elements of it surface during the introduction but then become obsolete as the tone shifts. This might be a tactful move behind the film, because of the almost biographical nature of the film and the need to gain access to shooting in Vatican City, which does not excuse them for not calling out such issues in the way that BY THE GRACE OF GOD does in such a perceptive manner. It is imperative this problem isn’t swept under the carpet in the name of preserving the celestial reputation of the church.
THE TWO POPES is an interesting film to have on the festival circuit, with two noteworthy performances from Hopkins and Pryce. They capture the humorous bromance of two old men doddering through their golden years blessing the people of the globe and having to navigate a changing political and socially-orientated landscape in which religion must find a precarious balance. The film is digestible enough for those lacking extensive religious knowledge, and the framing and cinematography of the film exudes a grandeur that makes you consciously aware of the monetary power and overarching influence the church has to this day.
THE TWO POPES was selected for TIFF, Telluride, London and Cambridge for their 2019 festivals, and will see it head to Netflix in the autumn after a short cinematic release.