The institution of the papacy, having existed for the past 2,000 years, is so ingrained in the fabric of the world that even non-Catholics are interested when a new pope is named. The Two Popes investigates one of the most interesting periods in the papacy’s recent past and the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, and Pope Francis, aka Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina.
The film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten, jumps back and forth in time, but focuses mainly on two periods: the election of Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to the papacy following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, and a trip Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) made to Vatican City in 2012 at the behest of Pope Benedict, when he was considering renouncing his position.
As depicted in the film, Ratzinger and Bergoglio are essentially polar opposites. Ratzinger holds true to the traditions of the church, even as the world changes around it, while Bergoglio is a progressive whose methods have earned him as much scorn as praise. The bulk of the film focuses on conversations the two have in 2012, as they debate their differences, the direction of the church, and more.
The synopsis makes the film sound relatively dry, but the filmmakers keep it engaging with healthy doses of humor, commentary on the host of issues the church has faced in recent years, and visual techniques that virtually demand the attention of the audience. Shifting camera angles, editing tricks, and more turn the conversations in the film into a kind of sport, with each side giving as good as he takes.
Although each man is featured prominently, the film is mostly interested Bergoglio, as there are multiple flashbacks which delve into his past. It’s clear that the filmmakers want to position him as the better person to lead the church, although they don’t shy away from addressing a controversial period in his younger days. One aspect that is touched on but doesn’t get enough attention in the film is what a major change his election to pope was. Among other notable facts, he was the first non-European to be elected pope since Gregory III in 731, and the first from the Americas.
Aside from the contributions of the filmmakers, the performances of Hopkins and Pryce make the film what it is. Thanks to some fine makeup/prosthetics on both and a great accent by Pryce, the two Welshmen convincingly portray the two popes. But more than that, it’s the easy camaraderie between the two, even when the characters are at odds with each other, that keeps their conversations scintillating and elevates their performances.
The Two Popes is one of a slew of films Netflix is positioning to be a contender at next year’s Oscars. Given the subject matter, solid filmmaking from a great director, and two stellar actors squaring off against each other, it’s a good bet the film will garner plenty of accolades in the months to come.
The Two Popes debuts on Netflix on December 20.