The Two Popes ★★★
Available: Streaming: Netflix.
The foundation of the Roman Catholic Church shook in February 2013 when the conservative German Pope Benedict XVI announced (in Latin) that he was retiring, the first Pope to do so in 600 years, and a few days later was succeeded by the liberal Argentinian, Jorge Bergoglio. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (based on his play, “The Pope”) invents a remarkable meeting between the two men that suggests how this strange turn of events might have occurred.
Casting a Cardinal as a salesman and the Church as a product doesn’t exactly go over well with the Pope.
Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) intends to hand his resignation to Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) when he’s called in 2012 to the Pope’s opulent summer residence in the Alban Hills outside Rome. As he tells Benedict, “I can no longer be a salesman for a product I can’t endorse.” Casting a Cardinal as a salesman and the Church as a product doesn’t exactly go over well with the Pope. He fears that Bergoglio’s retirement will be viewed as retaliation for his criticism of Benedict’s illiberal stands on everything from married priests to the Latin liturgy. Benedict and the tango-loving, soccer fan Bergoglio, each arrogant in his own way, exchange one-liners that fail to do justice to a variety of complex doctrinal and moral issues. This black-and-white, caricatured positioning of the two men as opposites is the least satisfying part of McCarten’s clever screenplay and Fernando Meirelles’s [“City of God” (2002), “The Constant Gardner” (2005)] direction.
While the actors are equally superb, the characters are not on the same footing.
After their separate dinners, retired to a room where they can just sit, Bergoglio’s complex past—seen in flashbacks—as a young man engaged fully in society and a romantic relationship, is illuminated. As expected, Benedict softens a bit, acknowledging that his favorite TV show is “Komisar Rex,” about a German shepherd who solves crimes, and revealing that he can play an old cabaret tune on the piano—not enough, yet, to indicate that Benedict has the emotional capacity for the inevitable rapprochement with the more open, if unctuous, Bergoglio. While the actors are equally superb, the characters are not on the same footing.
The two next meet in the Sistine Chapel (where Bergoglio hears a sax playing American jazz--one of many soundtrack oddities, including a curious rendition of, and use of, the Italian partisan anthem “Bella Ciao”). And that’s where the script comes to life. Bergoglio “confesses” to Benedict—shown in riveting flashbacks (Juan Minujín is the younger Bergoglio)—that he is more—and less—than the moralistic, man-of-the-people presentation that characterizes his public image. “This is not a time I’m proud of…. Pride obscured my judgment,” he tells the Pope, referring to his relationship decades ago to Argentina’s anti-Catholic right-wing government. (Caveat emptor: while this story is based on history, it’s far from the truth.)
Two deeply flawed human beings, at the apex of the 21st-century Catholic Church.
Benedict’s history is less interesting in fact and on screen, in part because it’s not presented in flashbacks. We learn that he didn’t “taste life itself” and so doesn’t know how to relate to the common man. He appears to give a confession in turn to Bergoglio—about his role in the pedophilia scandals. Although glossed over in McCarten’s script, the Pope’s confession leads to the two men absolving each other of what appear to be major failings, even crimes; two deeply flawed human beings, at the apex of the 21st-century Catholic Church. They share a pizza.
The story of doctrinal opposites meeting and influencing each other is a seductive, if predictable one. Witness the 2019 Oscar Best Picture, “Green Book,” or the efforts to portray a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. For the story to work, each man should be moved by the relationship to a new understanding of himself. “Green Book” has been faulted for putting the onus on the black classical pianist for most of the emotional movement. “The Two Popes” is similarly dissatisfying. Benedict warms somewhat in the end: walking through a crowd in the Sistine Chapel, watching a soccer game on TV. But he hasn’t changed, nor has Bergoglio.
Powerful performances by Oscar-winning (Hopkins) and multiple-times-nominated actors (Hopkins and Pryce), and the need to satisfy the world’s curiosity—even through fiction—about what caused the tremors in the Catholic Church in 2013, make “The Two Popes” an entertaining film, but one that skims the surface of the moral issues confronting, and dividing, the contemporary Church.
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín
Runtime: 125 minutes
Oscars: Nominated for: 2019 Best Actor (Pryce); Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins); Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten)