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‘The Two Popes’ is an Entertaining But Shallow Semi-History

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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in "The Two Popes" (Netlfix)

With The Two Popes, director  Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and writer Anthony McCarten have made a film in the tradition of Peter Morgan’s long series of movies with Michael Sheen as Tony Blair: it’s a speculative dramatization of recent history that stars very skilled actors as recognizable world leaders while not necessarily shedding a huge amount of light on the people concerned or the events in which they participated. 

Based on McCarten’s play, The Two Popes tells the story of a couple of long meetings between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the man who would later succeed Benedict as Pope Francis. The first meeting begins with the Argentinian cardinal attempting to resign, while Benedict refuses to accept it. In a later meeting, Benedict drops the shocking news that he plans to retire, paving the way for Francis to succeed him.

It’s a unique relationship, as Benedict became the first pope in hundreds of years to resign, which also made him the first pope in centuries to still be alive while someone else served in the papacy. 

The film touches on much of the major subjects of Catholicism in the 21st century: the sex abuse scandal, the battle between the church’s conservative and liberal wings, and various other intrigues of Vatican politics. 

What The Two Popes ultimately shows us — the two men seeming to become friends, despite their significant philosophical and theological differences — is heartwarming, even if it comes off a little trite at times. We even see the pontiffs watching soccer together, as their home nations of Argentina and Germany faced off in the World Cup Final in 2014. 

Whatever else, it’s a very handsome film, with sumptuous photography inside and outside the Vatican, as well as at such locations as the Pope’s country retreat. We also see two different papal conclaves (for those intrigued by that sort of thing), although it may remind some of the similar scenes in The Godfather, Part III. 

In what’s mostly a two-hander, both actors are quite good, even if they only bear a passing resemblance to the actual real-life popes. Pryce, who played The High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, here plays a very different type of pious religious leader, while Hopkins, still going strong at 81, brings an icy gravitas to Pope Benedict. 

For some reason, while The Two Popes repeatedly alludes to rumors that Benedict had had some type of Nazi ties during his youth in Germany, the film shows us more extended flashbacks of Francis as a young priest in Argentina, as he admits he didn’t do enough to push back against that nation’s military junta in the 1970s; we’re not given any kind of similar look into Benedict’s controversial younger years. 

The Two Popes is not the most entertaining fictional work of recent times set at the Vatican with popes as the main characters. That would be The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series from 2017 that depicted Jude Law as a fictitious pontiff who was young, American, and very conservative. It was an absolutely bonkers show, featuring odd stylistic flourishes, kangaroos, and Diane Keaton as a nun wearing a shirt that said “I’m a virgin (but this is an old shirt).” A sequel, The New Pope, is on the way, in early 2020. 

Meirelles’ film is a very different animal, and trying to do different things. But it could have used a little more of The Young Pope‘s spirit of adventure and risk-taking. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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