REVIEW: THE TWO POPES is an intriguing docudrama with two of the year’s best acting performances

ttp-feature copy

Fernando Meirelles’ examination of the papal legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the rise of Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) is simple yet enthralling, even if it does come close to being a hagiography at times.

One of the fascinating subject matter areas that will always inspire filmmakers to explore is the changing face of important cultural institutions. Within the last decade, the exploration of the changing role of faith and of the Roman Catholic Church has become a popular topic in film, given the scandals that have plagued the church in terms of abuse of power and sexual misconduct. Fernando Meirelles engages in that conversation with The Two Popes, his docudrama focused on the election of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) to the papacy as a hardline conservative and the role of the cardinal who would become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as a reformer looking to make the church relevant to a population that is growing increasingly secularized and not seeing how the Church applies to them or their lives in the modern world.

Meirelles’ film kicks off with the death of Pope John Paul II and the congress of cardinals called to The Vatican to elect a new Pope to oversee the Holy See. It’s a time of tumult and unrest for the Catholic Church and the two leading candidates to replace John Paul II are Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) and Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce). Ratzinger is a conservative who misses the days when all of the cardinals spoke to each other in Latin exclusively and thinks the Church needs to follow its course and pull back from being open to reforms that appease modern thinking, while Bergoglio is a reformer and thinks the Church needs to make itself relevant to the young, to gays and lesbians and other groups it has traditionally seen as sinners and outside of communion. But Bergoglio also is reticent to hold himself out as a candidate for the papacy and so Ratzinger is elected and created as Pope Benedict XVI. Years pass and the Church still faces scandal as Bergoglio considers retiring as a cardinal. It is now that Benedict XVI calls him to Rome to visit him and the two engage in some rigorous debate about the state of the church and the world as they get to know each other and how each views the world in relation to the church. As they have these conversations, we also get flashbacks to Bergoglio’s youth and we see why the young Bergoglio (beautifully played by Juan Minujin) is reticent to politic and wants to retire to being a parish priest.

The film is beautifully shot, with a documentary feel to it at times to make you feel a part of the proceedings. Other times, it basks you in the grandeur of the Vatican and the beauty of Argentina in the 1960s. Much like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy which are largely conversationally based, the real feat of the film is the engaging performances and chemistry between Pryce and Hopkins. The two give a commanding and enthralling performance that wraps you into their debates. The other half of the film is Pryce and Minujin showing the development of Francis’ worldview; from his calling to the ministry to his election as pope. Minujin is wonderful in these flashback sequences. But it’s Pryce who sells us on the humility and reticence of who Francis is. Hopkins is excellent as well, as he tests Bergoglio to learn his character before letting him know that he intends to retire and wants him to stay on to push reform.

Meirelles’ film serves to present the humanity behind the curia of the Roman Catholic Church. It opens a sympathetic eye to the tremendous pressure it takes to run an institution to the Church. Even though the latter half of the film seems to verge on a hagiography showing all of Francis’ popularity and accomplishments; what comes before is a great film, engaging and compelling. Pryce and Hopkins alone provide enough reason to watch it, but Meirelles’ compelling style and the film’s beautiful cinematography and production design are more than enough to push this towards one of the year’s best.