The holiest of figures are brought down to earth in The Two Popes, a new Netflix film from director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, based on McCarten’s 2017 play The Pope.
This often lighthearted but altogether serious film stars Anthony Hopkins as the staunchly conservative Pope Benedict, who is elected to supreme pontiff but ultimately dragged down by a plethora of scandals and corruption plaguing the Catholic Church. In response, he elicits a visit with Cardinal Bergoglio—the future Pope Francis—a far more progressive figure of the church played by Jonathan Pryce, to discuss and debate the future of the papacy, while also acknowledging the tremendous toll a title like “Pope” takes on people who are, as Benedict himself notes, “only human.”
One of the more surprising aspects of The Two Popes is its variance of filmmaking. There are three distinct cinematic styles Meirelles and McCarten stitch together in the narrative. First, there’s the pragmatic choice to handle expository information through a documentary format (though never literally), where important details are voiced over with news footage and rapid cuts to photos and paintings in order to boost excitement over the subject matter.
These bits only come a handful of times in the film, but they carry over into the more stylized scenes showcasing how a Pope is selected, in what was previously a virtually unknown practice for hundreds of years, now brought to the big screen in thrilling, meticulous fashion. The Vatican itself is also painstakingly recreated with extraordinary detail.
The second cinematic style is the film’s main appeal, and that is the conversation piece between the titular leaders. At times, they’re positioned as two old acquaintances catching up over mundane activities, resembling the laid-back, anti-glamorous drama of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. Other times, the film moves them to wonderfully realized locations, where their ideologies and motivations are tested in ways more similar to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.
It’s fascinating to watch as these two men enjoy each other’s company one moment, then snipe and provoke one another in the next without losing an ounce of their charm, a testament to these two actors pulling off some of their finest work in years, thanks in part to McCarten’s sharp knack for witty dialogue spoken by real-life figures at the height of their powers, as we’ve seen in his other films, notably Darkest Hour and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
The third style is easily the film’s most jarring, but arguably still effective for all the right reasons. At a few key moments, the backstory of Pope Francis is realized through patchwork flashbacks to his youth, with some scenes calling back to the gritty violence of Meirelles’s landmark film, City of God, trading the favelas of Brazil for the streets of Argentina. In some cases, these scenes offer little to the viewer, except to expose Cardinal Bergoglio’s own self-doubt and admitted hypocrisy, taking us far away from his spoken duel with Pope Benedict just as it’s getting interesting.
Regardless, this could have easily been a dull and treacly film about two living, real-life figures who exist as a paradox in many ways, both for themselves and the billions of Catholic believers who heroize them. What The Two Popes offers everyone, not just Catholics, is a chance to meet these men in the middle, albeit through a fictional story and some loosely inspired anecdotes. The result is an entertaining and crisply directed film with two powerhouse performers who rise above any criticisms of logistical inauthenticity, perhaps because the persistent humor in the script tends to laugh away all pretense.
At a time when organized religion is at its most scrutinized, and rightfully so according to many, The Two Popes is its own confession of a kind, available for anyone willing to listen. It won’t wash away the obvious sins of the church and its hierarchy at large, but it does humanize the people at the center who are just so.