Arts movie review

God’s Rottweiler meets God’s Labrador

Pryce and Hopkins are a match made in Heaven trying to save the Church from itself

The Two Popes
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce
Coming to Netflix on Dec. 20

I knew the second I saw the solemn queue of red-robed cardinals processing to “Dancing Queen” that I was going to love this movie. Or maybe, I knew it from the moment I learned that Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce would be playing opposite each other as Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI né Ratzinger and Pope (to be) Francis né Bergoglio. This beautifully shot film by “City of God” director Fernando Meirelles combines a gentle playfulness, a beaming beneficence, and a philosophical exploration of a unique turning point in history.

The story takes us from the moment Cardinal Ratzinger is crowned Pope to the moment the mantle passes unorthodoxly (i.e. by his own hand) to his successor, who sets it aside altogether along with all the other pomp of the papacy. The centerpiece of the film is a series of sometimes heated, sometimes touching tête-a-têtes between the two seminarians. The spotlight is trained on Bergoglio, the “lowly but chosen” Argentinian bishop and our current Pope, whose life story we are privy to through a series of flashbacks — a choice made, no doubt, to weave a story of redemption and rebirth, casting Bergoglio as the ready-made balm for the Church’s internal bleeding and loss of members.

In documenting one historic moment, Meirelles creates a second one: the bringing together of two of the best actors of our time, who also happen to bear uncanny resemblances to their templates. Pryce, an old hand at playing religious authorities (Cardinal Wolsey in “Wolf Hall” and the High Sparrow in “Game of Thrones”), is a gentle powerhouse in his depiction of Bergoglio. He layers tones of radiant empathy, ever-present remorse, affected naiveté, and modest simplicity like ratatouille made by a Michelin-starred chef — a gourmet dish dressing up as rustic peasant food. His wrinkled yet youthful face seems to constantly express wonder at how fortunate he is to be able to see all that the world has to offer, whether it be the cheap pizza outside the Vatican or a sprig of fragrant oregano.

Benedict is in many ways a much more subtle and complex character than the open-hearted Bergoglio. He is cerebral and scholarly. He’s less prone to making eye contact and more likely to challenge your premises. His rabid defense of church doctrines earned him the nickname of “God’s Rottweiler,” and Hopkins gives a glimpse of those teeth. Hopkins’s Benedict is tired, sarcastic, impatient, and self-disparaging. His responses to Bergoglio’s deeply personal reflections are dry and unemotional. He doesn’t have the empathetic nature of his Latin American counterpart, but he has his own endearing qualities. He plays the piano but is ignorant of the Beatles. He eats dinner alone, accompanied by a bottle of Fanta. 

Hopkins is more of an evocation of Pope Benedict: he speaks more slowly and less readily than his real-life counterpart, and although he attempts a vague German pronunciation at moments, the only thing that comes through is his distinctive Welsh lilt. Pryce, on the other hand, blew me away with his Argentinian accent and his apparent proficiency in four of the five languages featured in the film. But then again, he’s not new to playing Argentinians of fascist leanings (having played Perón in Evita).

Both characters wear the weight of the past on their souls and the weight of the Catholic world on their shoulders. In treating Bergoglio’s early ties with the military junta, the film attempts neither to whitewash his collaboration with the fascist regime nor to effect a sudden disillusionment in the viewers. Rather, the conflicting motives are presented impartially if somewhat perfunctorily, and the error in judgment is ascribed to youthful pride and high-pressure circumstances. I would have liked to see the internal struggle and political factors fleshed out in more detail, with more texture and historical context. At every other moment, I had felt close to the open-book character of Bergoglio, but at the climax, I suddenly felt held at arm’s length, as his motives and rationalizations became opaque.

The film is visually stunning, featuring a wide variety of cinematographic compositions. The setting stretches from the streets of Buenos Aires to the Sistine Chapel. The camera shoots from all angles — inches from the face, high above the landscape, focused on the tip of a pen one minute and the ceiling the next. The grand scale on which the events portrayed in the film are unfolding is underlined by the intermittent intercutting of documentary footage portraying the scandals resulting from the Church’s financial malfeasance or sexual assault of children. At the same time, there is a feeling that we are privy to an insider’s view of something we would otherwise have only known through media portrayals. The tense, grey-toned flashbacks to Argentina’s repressive past stand in stark contrast to Bergoglio’s present placid nature and the sunny, idyllic shots of Italy.

The film also managed to provide a convincing depiction of character aging, something rare in modern cinema. Juan Minujín as young Bergoglio transforms from an idealistic, fresh-faced youth to a man with tired bespectacled eyes, subtle wrinkles (shout-out to the makeup artists), and a wearier and warier carriage. It’s easy to see how the thoughtful, remorseful young man would develop into the benevolent, globe-trotting Papa.

This movie escaped the pitfalls of others in its genre: it neither made Bergoglio’s early love a bigger deal than it was nor depicted a sudden character transformation (and instead showed a slow, difficult one). It did not shy away from quiet, tranquil moments of simple conversation. The filmmakers avoided the obvious pitfall of comparing Benedict’s brief (mandatory) involvement with the Hitler Youth to Bergoglio’s support of Perón. Somewhat surprisingly, considering their widely publicized nature, the film does not dwell too much on the sex scandals that have tainted the Catholic Church during this century, especially considering Benedict’s confession to Bergoglio. 

By the time the film was closing out with shots of the real Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis greeting each other as old friends, I realized I had grown attached to these two popes, “both alike in dignity,” each with his own flaws and regrets, and I felt I hadn’t gotten enough of either of their stories. This is a film for those who enjoy satisfying character development, meditative scenes, thoughtful dialogue, and historical and political intrigue. It’s a pity it’s only playing on Netflix and not in the theatres, as it is certainly deserving of the “big screen.”