Review: “The Two Popes” is an entertaining conversation


Courtesy of Netflix.

Ver Lumod

Netflix’s latest cinematic exercise “The Two Popes” is at once compelling, funny and thoughtful.

Based on true events, the film focuses on the titular two popes: the soon-to-be pope emeritus Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and the future Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce. The latter, then Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, visits his superior in his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, with the intention to retire back to simple priesthood in his home city of Buenos Aires. However, Benedict constantly rebuffs his request, as he has other plans. Embattled with old age as well as with the specter of scandal that has permeated the Catholic Church, he wants to give up the papacy for good, and he needs a successor. While they both possess contradicting ideological views, from Benedict’s traditionalist beliefs to Cardinal Bergoglio’s liberal stance, the two eventually agree to forge a path toward the Church’s future.

“The Two Popes” is, for all intents and purposes, basically a two-man play. In yet another entry to 2019’s compelling cinematic duos that run the gamut from “The Lighthouse” to “Ford v. Ferrari,” the film features the undeniable acting prowess that is Hopkins and Pryce. The two refreshingly play off of each other, which is greatly helped by cinematographer César Charlone’s skillful staging. As a result, it becomes less of an expectedly boring history class and more like a buddy comedy where the two popes play the Odd Couple dynamic to great effect.

Individually, Hopkins effects a Germanic air like Benedict convincingly, conveying the rigidity that is expected of the old guard, who resists change and consequently doesn’t even know who The Beatles are. On the other hand, Pryce is tailor made for his role as Pope Francis down to his uncanny looks. While he carries the emotional arc of the film through flashbacks, he is also a sight for sore eyes, ranging from his well-delivered humor to his simple-minded ways.

Visually, “The Two Popes” is far from a somber historical drama. Director Fernando Meirelles, who has done the classic “City of God,” employs his trademark fast-paced style, making mundane activities like the election of a new pope exciting to watch. He subverts stylistic expectations by featuring different color palettes for different time periods of Cardinal Bergoglio’s flashback scenes as well as adding “Dancing Queen” to the film’s musical repertoire, which pertains to his appropriately quirky personality.

The film was penned by Anthony McCarten, the in-demand screenwriter for award-winning biographical dramas such as “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” While he convincingly portrays Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio’s clash in personalities through their character traits, he chooses not to dwell on overall ideological musings, which may infuriate viewers expecting a heavy-handed discourse on Catholic thought. Rather, McCarten focuses on the humanity between these two figures who disagree on several issues. In short, it’s more than a biopic; it’s a dual character study.

“The Two Popes” is not strictly Catholic propaganda, as Meirelles and McCarten refuse to shy away from the Church’s complicity in child abuse scandals and financial corruption. However, the film maddeningly plays it safe and refrains from digging deep into those issues. In one scene, Benedict’s story about a certain pedophile priest is muted, which stylistically shows just how damaging it would have been to the morally pure image of the Church.

Still, “The Two Popes” is a great two-hander. It earns its two-hour runtime very well. It’s fun to see Hopkins and Pryce banter off each other, which should be reason enough for anyone to watch the film, Catholic or not. More importantly, it’s an engaging viewing experience that reminds everyone that religion doesn’t have to be all drab and gloomy.