The Two Popes is really three movies: a behind-the-scenes tale of Vatican politics, a mini-biopic about the current pontiff, and a two-man study of friendship, rivalry, and major British acting. The first, though intriguing, is more puzzling than illuminating. The second feels a bit like a Wikipedia page, albeit one with first-rate cinematography. The third is absolutely riveting, a subtle and engaging double portrait that touches on complicated matters of faith, ambition, and moral responsibility.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody), the film begins in 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gather at St. Peter’s to elect a successor, settling on Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), who becomes Pope Benedict XVI. The runner-up is Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), an Argentine priest who will replace Benedict eight years later, becoming Pope Francis in a highly unusual transfer of ecclesiastical authority.
The Two Popes observes the transition with an attention to detail that produces a surprising degree of suspense. In 2013, Bergoglio, who seems more at home on the motley streets of Buenos Aires than in the baroque chambers of the Vatican, travels to Rome to ask the pope’s permission to retire. Benedict, however, has other plans.
What is clear is that the two men, who may be brothers in Christ, are not friends. “I disagree with everything you say,” Benedict snaps at one point. Bergoglio is impatient with Benedict’s hard line on social and cultural issues, arguing that the church should use its moral influence to address issues like climate change and economic inequality.
The Two Popes isn’t altogether neutral in this debate, which takes place against a backdrop of scandal. The film uses television news snippets to remind viewers of the revelations of sexual abuse and financial malfeasance plaguing the church, but it also tries not to dwell on those problems. The filmmakers want us to see Bergoglio as a redemptive figure, a man whose ascension to the papacy portends an era of reform and renewal.
Pryce is an amiable presence, with an impressive ability to make himself understood in four of the five languages spoken onscreen. Hopkins, a bit of a historic hambone himself, does some of his craftiest acting in years. He mutters and whispers, sighs and fidgets, and turns Benedict from a presumed villain into an almost tragic figure. You may like Francis better — The Two Popes assumes, or maybe insists, that you will — but Benedict is the one who stays with you.