The Two Popes tells the story of how the current leader of the Catholic Church rose to his position after the near unheard-of resignation from the former Pope Benedict XVI. In every essence, the film is a battle within theology, a passing of the torch and a development of the most wholesome of friendships. Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and John Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) represent two competing sides inside The Church, Bergolio the side of progressive reformation and Ratzinger the conservative, traditional side. Inside Rome and eventually the Vatican itself the men discuss their pasts and the most profound matters of faith before history takes its course and Bergoglio succeeds the papacy and becomes Francis.
Anthony McCarten’s script is deeply beautiful and patient. From the very first discussion the two men have together they are depicted as wise leaders of faith, and it instantly becomes clear that this isn’t a critique. Instead, The Two Popes is an analysis of the men that changed the path of the Church and ushered it into the modern world.
They combat each other initially, Ratzinger critiquing the actions of Bergoglio as a Cardinal, and Bergoglio, attempting to be less forward, justifies his actions at every turn. Its some of the most engrossing dialogue of the year. The best part about this brilliance is that the film knows it doesn’t need to take the narrative any further; it can exist solely in this state. So that’s exactly what happens, and we see the two men converse again and again revealing more and more about themselves and the way they were in a time of significant change.
The performances from Pryce and Hopkins are sublime. The many close-ups capture their genius to great effect and display them merely as their characters, not as actors. The Two Popes biggest charm is its ability to display the human spirit, and the strength that comes from it and Pryce and Hopkins are the very heart of how the film approaches generating this, and they find something quite profound along the way. Yes, this is a film about Francis more than Benedict XVI, but in every scene towards the end in which Benedict is farewelled, you could almost argue he was the point all along. The depiction may not be a wholly true one, of course, his actual resignation was shrouded in controversy.
Still, those moments point to a worldwide unity in farewelling the leader of the world’s most immense faith, a unity long forgotten in the grander scheme of things. This is all thanks to performances. The quiet, introspective stance of Hopkins balances perfectly alongside the slightly more expressive Pryce to form chemistry of both friendship and sheer drive to make the Church the best it can be.
Fernando Meirelles hadn’t directed a feature film since near the beginning of the decade, and to say that this effort far betters his last is an understatement. Just like McCarten with the script he knows there isn’t much he has to do this time. He soaks in the beauty of every stunning discussion backdrop, he captures his stars in those aforementioned gorgeous close-ups, and he lets the natural emotional essence of the story flow unassisted or hindered.
His ability to take such a critical moment of faith, a moment mainly settled via deep thought, and turn it into something entertaining and heart-warming is startling and likely unmatched, though few have tried. Overall, Easily his finest work in years.
The Two Popes is a film that washes over you, almost like a cleanse, and then ushers you out the other side enlightened and with a great deal of respect for the two men who bare their flaws and find only forgiveness on their path to changing the world.
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