Two Popes

Two Popes Review

by D. Adonis

**** 4 Stars

Two Popes is certainly a film which would entertain and enlighten both devout Catholics and non-believers alike.’

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Actors: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins

Here is a film about the fate of the Catholic Church. One expects such a film to be propaganda, or an exposé (much like Spotlight); it is neither. Rather, Two Popes an exploration of the ancient institution’s role in the rapidly changing modern world.

This is not a good pope versus bad pope kind of film. Alternatively, Two Popes presents us with a dialectic: two theologians with contrasting views, one conservative while the other is progressive, who form an unexpected friendship. When Bergoglio (Pope Francis) was summoned by Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) after his resignation as archbishop was declined by the Vatican, he saw it as a perfect opportunity to personally request for his retirement. Yet midway through the film their roles are reversed: it is now Benedict who wishes to resign as Pope – something that has not been done for 700 years.

At this point, many people are abandoning Catholicism. In Bergoglio and Ratzinger’s conversations, contentious topics such as celibacy, abortion and homosexuality arise, and how the Church should deal with them are debated upon. Two Popes frequently stresses the Church’s crisis: it is simply too conservative to keep up with the modern world wherein its traditional beliefs are no longer relevant.

It must not be forgotten that their conference is entirely fictional, though the words may not necessarily be as such. In their meeting in 2013, no one really knew what they talked about. ‘Of course we don’t know what was said’ says Meirelles, ‘but that’s the brilliance of the script, because all the lines they say in the film are taken from interviews or books and [are opinions] they actually said’.

While there are moments of poignancy, as when Bergoglio recalls his past life in an extensive flashback sequence, there are also moments of laughter. McCarten adds fun with the little details: in one scene the two shared a meal of pizza and Fanta (Ratzinger’s preferred beverage), and Bergoglio impatiently reaches for the pizza, but is hindered by Ratzinger’s long-winded prayer. Humour does not only add to the viewing pleasure in an otherwise boring feature; it also gives verisimilitude to the film. McCarten remarks, ‘If you leave humour out, it stops being realistic’.

Despite the overwhelming praise, the brief passing reference to Benedict’s involvement with the Church’s child abuse scandal also invited criticisms, seeing it as a ‘weak and superficial treatment’ of the issue. Meirelles made the better choice, however, in allowing the audience to fill in the gaps; to repeat what is already known to many would simply be redundant. Instead, more of the film is dedicated to Bergoglio’s history and his relatively unknown involvement in the 1970’s Dirty War, an act which burdens him with guilt, and one which hinders him from accepting the papal role.

The film’s overall appeal owes itself to the two leading performances. With his uncanny resemblance to the Argentinian pontiff, Jonathan Pryce is the perfect Bergoglio (as the real Pope Francis is shown in the credits, the difference is almost unnoticeable). Anthony Hopkins as Ratzinger also gave a brilliant performance that elevated the rigid conservative ‘watchdog of the faith’ to a sympathetic figure.

Two Popes is certainly a film which would entertain and enlighten both devout Catholics and non-believers alike.

Two Popes is currently available on Netflix and was rated 12A by the BBFC.

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