The Two Popes brings together South American, European and Stateside talent in a suitably international creation. Deftly directed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (City of God), and luminously lensed by his Uruguayan collaborator Cesar Charlone, it’s suffused with a lightness of touch. Cardinal Bergoglio, a critic of Pope Benedict, seeks an audience with the Pontiff in order to resign his see. But Benedict has other plans for Bergoglio. The once and future Popes come together in a series of meetings that gradually reveal the men behind the mystique.
It’s a tense time to make a movie about the Papacy. But Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten let in the light with wit, humour and whipsmart editing. A masterstroke too is the casting of Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and a wonderful Jonathan Pryce as the soon-to-be Pope Francis (Bergoglio). The barbs and banter between the two men – over doctrine, food and football – make everymen of them.
Monochrome sidesteps into Bergoglio’s radical past, amid the dangers of Argentinian politics, add shade to the light, but in truth, slow the movie down. Because it’s never so much alive as when Pryce and Hopkins are onscreen together – whether quipping about Abba or trying each other’s patience. Neatly too, Meirelles see-saws the film, Hopkins’ Benedict seemingly the one in need of saving, unsure of his fitness for office, out of touch and personally awkward. But both men need redemption and help each other to reach it.
Charlone’s beautiful photography makes the recreations of the Vatican gleam like the real thing. And God’s-eye shots from above, as the Popes traverse a herb garden, or as Cardinals move contrariwise in procession to cast their vote, bring heaven to earth. Light floods in, air is breathed. Then there’s life in miniature – Benedict, rapt, playing the piano for Bergoglio; both men on the sofa cheering their rival soccer teams.
And while it’s a film of characterful and visual contrasts – Benedict in white, Bergoglio in black – it’s a deeply unifying, and satisfying film. Pomposity and preachiness are nowhere to be seen. Tit-for-tat wordplay and up-to-the-minute editing, create a humour that leavens the daily bread. The rat-a-tat rhythm of sound and vision, as the voting takes place, is both tense and funny.
Credit to Netflix then for taking a punt on a Papal project. And one that doesn’t debunk either Pope or takes sides or easy pot-shots. Rather, we follow the pathways of faith, politics and personality, and find ourselves invited to ponder questions not just about the Pontiffs but ourselves.
Jonathan Pryce is superb as Bergoglio, at ease with his faith but troubled by his own fitness for High Office. And Hopkins, as angular and hard as a white walnut, sheds his shell to reveal the core of capability, in an engrossing performance.
Writer McCarten has form in finding the humanity in his projects (Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody). And Meirelles’ direction duly brings the word to life, eliciting two fine performances, and some stunning cinematography. Habemus picturam motionis - we have a film!