Janus Film Review Special: The Two Popes (2019)

Updated: Mar 21

as reviewed by Tom Bonard.

Format reviewed: Netflix


The Two Popes opens with a very effective dramatic interpretation of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the election of a new Pope. As with most of the film, dramatic licence is employed for these imagined sequences depicting a very solemn and secret voting process as the gathered masses (no pun intended) in St. Peter's Square await the white smoke. Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) are contemporaries and both high-profile candidates for the role of Pontiff following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (adapting his own stage play) has fashioned a sensitive examination of the relationship between two recent key figures in the Catholic Church. Enabling this, and one of the film's many strengths, is perhaps the most perfectly canny casting of actors portraying real-life figures in recent years. Hopkins and Pryce are superb, and it is a real joy to watch two consummate performers at the top of their game. A large proportion of the film concerns conversations between newly-appointed Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and Cardinal Bergoglio (who will become Pope Francis). Bergoglio is facing a crisis of confidence and intends to return to Buenos Aires to retire. Benedict has other plans. There is a cautious friction between the two; a clash of ethos and a struggle even to agree to disagree on matters of theology.


The film makes slightly heavy-handed work of the political implications surrounding the two men, though it also tries hard not to condemn either Pontiff, thus presenting them as flawed, but ultimately faithful men. We follow Bergoglio's Jesuit background and guilt at his own perceived failure to protect his fellow Jesuit priests amidst violent Argentinian dictatorship. Passing comment is also made of Ratzinger's historical connection to the Nazis. Throughout, both Hopkins and Pryce's performances are imbued with sensitivity and, on occasion, surprising playfulness. Ratzinger is portrayed, initially at least, as an intellectual and somewhat humourless figure, with a steadfast commitment to the traditions of the Church, and maintaining a conservative outlook amidst scandal within. Bergoglio is presented as a warmer character, involved in his local Argentinian community, discussing the benefits of oregano with the Pope's groundsman, and frustrated at the somewhat fusty nature of the Church. Pryce also makes expert use of his skills with a quizzical eyebrow. Much is made of their conflicting views on the Church’s relevance in the modern world. For Benedict, the heritage of the Church must be protected at all costs, despite being perceived by many as closed-off and unapproachable (“walls are strong structures,” he suggests). For Bergoglio, it is the dignity of the poor and those in need that must be upheld and protected. For him, "mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls." The film places these opposing views front and centre.


Director Fernando Meirelles has crafted a beautiful looking film. He matches the sensitivity (and humour) of the script, whilst also offering subtle but vivid symbolism. Scenes of confession are interwoven with shots of a doorframe in the shape of a Cross, for example. Pilgrims and tourists admire the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, (a stunning replica set), unaware that the two Popes are in the sacristy next door sharing a take away pizza (one of my favourite scenes of the film). It is these contrasting moments that give the film a welcome lightness. There is great delight to be had hearing the two men discuss the merits of The Beatles, for instance. Or Bergoglio's desire for a slice of pizza being interrupted by the need to say grace before meals. Both imagined scenarios, but important in showing that behind closed doors, Popes are just as human as the rest of us. Neither character takes himself that seriously, but are each completely devoted to their solemn duties.


The Two Popes is intriguing in that both its lead figures are still alive. At the time of writing, Pope Francis remains in office, whilst Benedict is now titled Pope Emeritus, having stepped down from the role in 2013 due to “lack of strength of mind and body”. Some have noted that The Two Popes suggests other reasons for his retirement, which has courted some controversy. In a film about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially considering the high-profile sexual abuse scandal, it aims to strike a delicate balance between a certain amount of inevitable and perhaps necessary speculation (as screenwriter McCarten has noted), and established facts and events. For the most part, it succeeds, if remaining a little unsubtle in parts. In the current climate, these issues cannot go unmentioned. Ultimately, the film doesn’t dwell on how the Church has dealt with its controversies and scandal. Some may find that a bit disingenuous, but I suggest that is not what the film is actually about anyway. The gentle joy of The Two Popes is in watching two superlative actors completely inhabiting fictionalised versions of fascinating people, grappling with their vast responsibilities and learning to accept their vulnerabilities. What the film definitely succeeds in is reminding us that we are all human doing the best we can. In a 'holier-than-thou' culture fraught with cynicism, ready to cast the first of many stones at the slightest opportunity, such a sympathetic portrayal can't be a bad thing.


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