However little you know about the politics of the papacy, there are a few things about Fernando Mereilles’ The Two Popes that stick out with an infectious entertainment value that a film released in 2019, focusing on two old white men, urgently needs.
One: Jonathan Pryce as Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, can certainly hold a tune as he whistles ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’. He explains this to Anthony Hopkins’ Joseph Ratzinger, former Pope Benedict XVI, in Latin. Two: Ratzinger loves a bit of pizza. Orange Fanta, too. It’s little details like these that keep this biographical picture, framing the speculative private conversations between past and present heads of the Catholic Church light and playful – if slightly too much at times.
While the title might suggest a simultaneous pair of ruling pontiffs, the film in fact gives generous time to the transitional phase between both leaders, while also shading Bergoglio’s youth with extended monochrome flashbacks.
The power shifts brilliantly between both actors, perfectly contrasting in their performances. They work as well as flesh and blood figures of the cartoonish angel and demon cartoons sitting on either shoulder of an everyman hero – except the focus remains entirely on them. Hopkins masters a sense of enigmatic intimidation, one that proves vital for the audacious circumstances under which he hung up his zucchetto. Pryce, with curiosity and empathy, ends up carrying the film, as the story quickly leans into Bergoglio’s conflicted relationship with his country under the Dirty War and the December 2001 riots in Argentina.
This emphasis on one pope’s anxieties inevitably lessens the strength of the other’s character. But luckily, Hopkins is Hopkins, and so with every close-up of his stern eyes combined with the sound of his witty rasp, balance is just about restored in terms of performance – even though details on Ratzinger’s own past politics as well as his role in the coverup of cases of sexual assault in the Church are left fairly scant.
The Two Popes, above all else, is two hours that lets two old men have a chunter. There’s philosophical heft to their discussions, with occasional musings on love, legacy, responsibility and guilt. But the strongest moments are those that see the relationship between both human beings sparkle. With whimsical direction, favouring a cappella needle drops (courtesy of the film’s composer and The National guitarist, Bryce Dessner) and flip book title cards, the potentially (and still occasionally) ponderous, opaque political picture is elevated into something altogether enjoyable.
- Director: Fernando Meirelles
- Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins
- Release date: 20 December 2019