Review by Conal Scullion
The Pope is a unique figure in the political world: elected in an undemocratic vote by fellow Cardinals, they are both a President and a King, while also embodying the spirit of the Catholic Church. The Two Popes is a spiritual yet political film, displaying the struggles of both Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and Francis (formerly Jorge Bergoglio), played by Jonathan Pryce.
The Two Popes seems hyperbolic in how it depicts both its leads: the unseen Benedict is clouded with scandal and Nazi accusations, while instead of engaging with the glamour of the Papal summer residence, Bergoglio would rather speak to the gardener outside. Benedict is the embodiment of the wealth and power of the Catholic Church, while Bergoglio sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s more comfortable building a church under an Argentine highway than living in the Vatican’s priceless walls.
I expected their meeting to be a dull affair, so I was happily surprised to see things turning deliciously tense when Bergoglio meets to offer his resignation to Benedict. The film becomes a vicious political drama as Bergoglio verbally strikes the Pope over the numerous scandals the Catholic Church faced during his reign. This scene is electric in how the two figures attack each other, as the camera lingers on close-ups of the actors’ excellent facial and vocal control. Bergoglio describes Benedict’s absolving of clerical abusers as “magic words”, while Benedict claims that Bergoglio’s way of life damages the Church’s image. The irony, of course, is that the opposite is true: the film makes it clear that Benedict’s way of life is the damaging element here. At this point, the viewer could be led to believe that this is a classic hero versus villain story, with Bergoglio’s ideology and heart winning out over the elder Pope.
[Anthony] Hopkins at first plays Benedict in a villainous style, hungrily eyeing the papal votes and dictating to his aides with a cold authority.
In an unexpected turn, however, The Two Popes embraces the Christian ideal of forgiveness as Bergoglio and Benedict enter a timeless bromance. Hopkins at first plays Benedict in a villainous style, hungrily eyeing the papal votes and dictating to his aides with a cold authority. However, he blossoms into an endearing old man who begins to accept the warmth of Bergoglio’s dogma into his own heart. The camera humanises him by observing him alone, watching Formula One in his study and drinking a worrying amount of Fanta. He may seem a hardline traditionalist wedged into the past, but even his own exercise watch constantly urges him to keep moving. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten depicts his unprecedented resignation as the culmination of his character arc: in resigning, he breaks Catholic tradition to such an extent that even Bergoglio argues against it, showing that he has learned from Bergoglio that the Church needs to change.
The Two Popes is an excellent character study in two central figures to the Catholic Church. This is a film that argues for the change happening under the rule of Pope Francis.
The Two Popes is currently streaming on Netflix.