Let others quibble about the fact that the meetings, debates and jokes exchanged in “The Two Popes” never actually happened. It’s a movie based on a play, a sort of papal “wish fulfillment fantasy” of the “If it didn’t happen like this, it should have,” variety, like “A Walk in the Woods,” “Elvis & Nixon” or “The West Wing.”
Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”) is one of the greatest directors to come out of South America. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are glorious actors, and uncanny look-alikes for Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Let’s see what they come up with.
Meirelles tests us right away with a couple of clumsily unfortunate choices. He dubs Pryce’s Spanish dialogue scenes, replacing his Spanish with a native speaker of the language who sounds little like him. An opening voice-over monologue of the pre-papal career of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine who became Pope Francis, is pointlessly if not wholly inexplicably also in Spanish.
Throwing all those subtitles, all that obvious fakery at us, right from the start, is a good way to make a lot of people tune out your papal “buddy comedy.”
But then the film finds its tone, the humble “man of the people” Pope (Pryce) sits in his Vatican bedroom, trying to get an English speaking Italian travel agent to book a flight home for him. She gets his name, remarks “Like the Pope?” She gets his address — “Vatican City.” “Nice TRY” she says, hanging up.
If only she’d waited to hear what credit card number he had at the ready.
“The Two Popes” is about the contrasting styles and testy relationship between Pope John Paul II’s close confidante and chosen successor, the conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and a rival Benedict dismissed when he ascended to the papacy, but had to turn to when the Catholic Church’s global priest child-molesting scandal blew up on his watch.
The idea is to contrast “God’s Rottweiler,” the Hitler Youth alumnus John Ratzinger (Benedict) with “The People’s Pope,” the simple champion of the poor and first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, Bergoglio (Francis).
It’s a humorless German vs. the folksy, joke-telling Argentine, a rigid adherent to pomp and circumstance forced to deal with a man ostentatiously un-ostentatious.
And it works. If you don’t think the Oscar-winning legend Hopkins can curt and dismissive, with imperious if not Nazi strong-man tendencies, you’ve not seen him in his evil prime. And his fellow Welshman Pryce has twinkled in many a supporting role over his decades in the cinema, just the right quality for Francis.
Meirelles treats us to that papal pomp, the Vatican City Papal Conclave of Cardinals where Archbishop Ratzinger politics and preens like the heir apparent he is, even though he fails to win on the first ballot. Other names have been put forward. Southern Hemisphere bishops are supporting Bergoglio.
Bergoglio paraphrases Plato, that the best qualification for “any leader is not WANTING to be leader.” Ratzinger, the future Benedict, CRAVES the papacy.
Benedict eventually wins the day, but this Argentine he looked down his nose at is very much on his mind when, years later, the scandal explodes, the Church’s decades of cover-up are exposed and “reform” is what the desperately ill institution desperately needs.
Benedict resents criticism, dogmatically insists on the raiments of office, adherence to ritual and circling the wagons against the assaults from “outside” the Church. Bergoglio recognized all along that “Our churches are beautiful, but empty,” and notes the Church is “not of this world” and out of touch.
One way the film opens up from these sometimes tetchy stage-bound arguments, mostly at the Pope’s country villa, is to take us back to Bergoglio’s Argentine past. Flashbacks, the earliest ones in black and white, capture his younger years, his plans for marriage and a business career, his love of tangoing with his intended (Cristina Banegas).
Juan Minujín plays the future Francis in these scenes, the best of which is the night he stepped into his local church, is urged into confession by the priest on duty and hears “the sign” that he has been waiting for, calling him to the priesthood. This scene, a dying priest convincing a young man that the fate that brought them together on this night was ordained by God, is profoundly moving.
Other flashbacks crash into Argentina’s troubled history, the murderous dictatorship that a guilt-ridden Bergoglio knows he didn’t challenge as openly as he might have.
But the heart of “The Two Popes” is these two popes bickering over dogma, traditions, the real evils in the world (“Banks,” says Bergoglio/Francis. “They devour everything.”) and priestly celibacy.
“San Pietro (Saint Peter, the Church’s founder) was MARRIED!” Bergoglio reminds the boss, ticking off other arcane traditions adopted, not ordained by the Bible, that fly in the face of modern life.
“I don’t agree with anything you say!” Benedict barks back.
The script tries entirely too hard to be cute, at times — papal rivals can be soccer rivals, too. But the leading men spar and tease and bond and bicker to great effect. Even the sour Benedict knows an ironic joke when he recites it.
“God always corrects one pope by sending another.”
It’s not “By the (Good) Book,” and it’s not real history. The whole scandal that brought Benedict down is inexcusably downplayed, the triumphalist closing credits ignore how the public’s infatuation with Francis has faded as his reforms haven’t reformed quickly and the scandal will not die.
These reasons, and some of the clumsy affections of the production, take this out of “awards season” contention, in my view.
But “The Two Popes” is still a revealing, intimate and interesting peek behind the fresco-bedecked walls of an institution trapped in a past of its own invention, confronting a future in which it still relies on a succession of very old men to meet.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujín
Credits: Directed by Fernando Meirelles, script by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:05