The first film I watched this decade is a surprising choice in the form of biopic The Two Popes following the conservative Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) who becomes Pope Benedict XVI and his eventual friendship with the more liberal Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who later becomes Pope Francis. Directed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles with a script written by Anthony McCarten based on the latter’s novel The Pope, The Two Popes manages to successfully avoid falling into the trap of becoming another studio churned out biopic. There is no doubt that the two leads are the stars of the show and contribute a lot to the film’s overall acclaim but Meirelles control on the tone of the film and McCarten’s deeply intense script make The Two Popes a thrilling watch, particularly scenes when it is the two gentleman by themselves. The film’s strength comes in its constant shift in dynamic. The opening scenes follow the death of Pope John Paul II and the deciding vote on who will be his successor and the differences between the two eventual popes are crystal clear. Cardinal Ratzinger does everything in his power to become Pope and succeeds by persuading his fellow Cardinals during breaks from voting whereas Bergoglio is discomforted by the prospect of becoming pontiff. There seems to be a projected rivalry on the two men which Ratzinger seems to act on but Bergoglio is perplexed by this narrative.
The power from this film comes from the brilliant screenplay by McCarten. His script reads like a power struggle at times as the dynamic shifts between the two popes’ favour throughout. The inclusion of flashbacks and context into their histories also helps the film to avoid being just a simple story of one Pope’s decline and another’s ascension. There is no bias for either one as we are just presented with facts such as Ratzinger’s admission that he knew about the molestation within the Church before the scandal came to light. Despite the two men being a part of the same religion, they have completely different viewpoints. Ratzinger feels that resigning is the only way to seek absolution whereas Bergoglio thinks that he should remain Pope and see the scandal through to the end. Bergoglio’s upbringing and story is filled with a lot more turmoil than Ratzinger who seems to have had a more privileged upbringing. Their conflicting interests and differing politics result in Bergoglio coming across as more compassionate than Ratzinger because he is more accepting and open to change. The ending scene with the two men watching the football is funny to watch and makes for a light tone to suggest that their friendship is on good terms.
The two leads excel in their roles as expected. Jonathan Pryce is absolutely brilliant in the leading role as Bergoglio who is the quietly outspoken of the two. Constantly having to justify his stance on controversial topics that differ from the conservative Church teachings, Bergoglio is seen equally as a disgrace and a revolutionary within the Church. It comes to light that this has been the case all his life with his complicated background during the Argentinian militaria regime. Whereas Ratzinger revels in the tradition and opulence of the Catholic Church, Bergoglio is happy with what he has. He doesn’t understand why those high up in the Church live in such luxury. Pryce is perfect casting in both his appearance and his characterisation, truly becoming the future pope. You never know what he is going to do or say next because he is unpredictable. One minute he will be conversing in Latin with Ratzinger and the next he will be teaching him how to tango.
Anthony Hopkins’ performance is his best in film for years. Bringing out mannerisms subtly with an understated accent and acting that seems effortless but is really meticulous, Hopkins is fantastic as the newly elected Pope. Ratzinger is not necessarily a likeable character because he is so set in his ways and has many dated opinions that don’t fit in with the times. He is clearly a highly intelligent man and extremely well-read but also detached from modern society. In some ways Bergoglio tests him to embrace the present world more and try to adapt. We don’t see as much of Ratzinger’s background as Bergoglio’s but Hopkins gives us enough to know that he has always been a lonely figure. The scene in which Ratzinger gives Bergoglio his confession is fantastic. The audience lingers on Hopkins’ words as he reveals his difficult time growing up and being saved by God.
In terms of awards buzz, The Two Popes has garnered attention for Pryce and Hopkins’ performances. I don’t think either will win due to strong competition in both categories but they are deserved nominations. I didn’t think I would find this film particularly enjoyable but I was pleasantly surprised. The performances alone are enough to the grip the viewer but it proved to be even more. It’s not a film about religion but more of a character study about two very men who are connected because of that religion. There were many gripping scenes filled with tension as the two popes debate about various aspects of the church. I also wasn’t expecting the film to have so many funny moments as well and it doesn’t feel too heavy in subject matter. I think following it primarily from the point of view of Bergoglio was a smart choice as we see the events from both the inside and the outside depending on what is happening.
What did you think of The Two Popes? Let me know in the comments below!