The Two Popes: A Surprisingly Accessible Holy Alliance
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has made a career out of examining the lives of significant men in history. After chronicling the stories of Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything, 2014), Winston Churchill (Darkest Hour, 2017), and Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018), he has now turned his sights towards two equally public, yet inherently less knowable figures in Netflix’s The Two Popes - Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis I (Jonathan Pryce). The Two Popes is a paradigmatic example of “the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.” It’s gorgeously designed, with expensive sets and sumptuous costumes, and focused entirely on two older British actors having a series of extended conversations. There are no action sequences to speak of, and the subject matter of the debates between the titular popes is more philosophical than bombastic. I don’t mean to suggest that The Two Popes is boring; on the contrary, it’s an incredibly engaging human drama, and director Fernando Mereilles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) gives the film an unexpectedly kinetic visual energy. But the real reason to see The Two Popes is the pair of star performances at its center. Hopkins, as Benedict, is giving one of his strongest performances in years. He’s fully engaged with the role, and he effectively conveys Benedict’s conflicted stances with respect to recognizing and atoning for the Church’s mistakes and adapting the Church’s role in a changing world while remaining adherent to tradition. Meanwhile, Pryce’s Cardinal Bergoglio is among the most three-dimensional performances I’ve seen this year, full of humor, tenacity, and genuine depth. Pryce, a veteran character actor, hasn’t had a lead role like this in decades, and he fully dives in--it’s much more than pure imitation (though Pryce does bear a striking resemblance to the current Pontiff). As the two men debate the direction of the Church and its moral responsibility to its believers and the world at large, you get the sense that you’re watching two masters at the top of their respective games sparring with one another. It’s a genuine thrill. The debates between the two leaders, though obviously steeped in Catholic theology and the specific challenges of the Catholic Church as an institution, are much more broadly accessible than one might expect. They reflect a broader tension, easily recognizable to anyone with even a passing interest in any public institution, between progress and tradition. Bergoglio and Benedict represent these two competing approaches for the Catholic Church, and Pryce and Hopkins present them with nuance and clarity. It’s all the more impressive knowing that none of these conversations between the two men--if they ever occurred--were witnessed by anyone. McCarten instead reconstructed these conversations based on public statements and writings that both popes issued, imagining how their debates would have gone. That research, along with an impressive attention to detail (Pope Benedict’s affinity for Fanta and Bergoglio’s obsessive soccer fandom are among the idiosyncracies included here), humanizes the characters and makes them feel fully lived-in. In a way, The Two Popes illustrates a fundamental paradox inherent in the increasingly large role Netflix is playing in today’s film industry. It seems entirely possible that a film like The Two Popes wouldn’t be made without Netflix’s financial backing; however, without a theatrical release (and corresponding marketing campaign), it risks being lost in the shuffle of Netflix’s vast online catalog--and that would be a shame, because The Two Popes is well worth seeking out.