Don’t tell Trump, but the pope is arguably the only world leader with more power than the U.S. president. And yet, despite its importance — and the fact that popes typically serve unto death, rather than four to eight years at a time — the position gets considerably less attention in popular entertainment. Maybe it’s just that few filmmakers dare to speculate about the personal life of someone whom 1.2 billion believers look to for guidance, when that massive global following would seem all the more reason to wonder what goes on behind closed doors at the Vatican.
In “The Two Popes,” Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles rushes in where angels fear to tread, with surprisingly emotional — and even more surprisingly comedic — results, dramatizing a series of meetings between John Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, a marvel), and his successor, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce, better than ever), the future Pope Francis. These mysterious tête-à-têtes took place before one of the most shocking twists in modern Church history: Six years ago, while controversy raged over sex abuse among the Catholic clergy, Pope Benedict XVI resigned, becoming the first pontiff to do so in more than six centuries. The previous time, way back in 1415, Pope Gregory XII was effectively forced to step down by rivals, whereas this decision came from Benedict, an ultra-conservative who renounced his title in 2013 to make way for progress, hand-picking a charismatic figure to lead the Church forward.
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What was said between these two men before Benedict made his all-but-unprecedented decision? That’s the essence of this brilliant two-hander, which extrapolates from all we know — and all that screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Darkest Hour,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) could dig up — about these two high-profile Church leaders to suppose the often tense, occasionally irreverent but always thoughtful parley in which they hash out their differences. It’s a gift to see two actors of this caliber playing against each other, speaking in an array of languages (including Latin, Italian and Spanish) to exchange spirited dialogue about the fate of the Catholic faith.
Roman Catholicism is a religion of ritual and tradition, although the film is clearly on the side of progress, introducing Pope Francis first. After a brief and unexpectedly humorous prologue in which he attempts to book a flight over the phone (a reminder that even the forward-thinker of “The Two Popes” is something of a Luddite, un-hip to the ways of the modern world), the film flashes back to 2005, the day the world learned of the passing of Pope John Paul II, who held the position for 26 years.
This early scene begins at street level — in what could be an extension of Meirelles’ “City of God” — snaking its way to a crowded Argentine square where Bergoglio gives Mass, demonstrating his natural gift for connecting with the public, and his love for soccer. He also likes ABBA, which explains (if it doesn’t entirely justify) the churchy “Dancing Queen” cover that accompanies the secret ritual by which the Curia vote in the next scene. Benedict, by contrast, prefers classical piano music (he even recorded such an album) and counts an Austrian cop-dog series, “Kommissar Rex,” among his peccadilloes.
These make for amusing details, which help to humanize both characters — a strange situation, considering that Catholics tend to put popes on a pedestal, viewing them as moral role models, with a direct line to God. But papal infallibility simply doesn’t parse with all the corruption and controversy that’s come spewing out of the Vatican in recent decades. If anything, it’s the acknowledgment of imperfection by Benedict — the room for doubt — that makes “The Two Popes” such a relevant and necessary film.
As a fellow cardinal reminds, quoting Plato, “The most important qualification for any leader is not wanting to be leader.” Benedict may have lobbied for the position, but when these two intellectual titans meet, neither one intends to continue in his current role. The pope has not yet announced his decision, whereas Bergoglio already wrote the Vatican several times requesting permission to retire — a demand that Benedict interprets as a critique of the Holy See. And so he summons Bergoglio so he can feel out his successor.
“I don’t agree with most things you say and do,” Benedict tells Bergoglio point-blank. “Have enough respect to show me your real anger.” Their personalities, like their politics, couldn’t be more different. Hopkins plays the dogmatic conservative, while Pryce is the jocular Jesuit, mixing humility with firm beliefs of his own, most importantly, the idea that the Church must evolve in order to stay true to its mission. The magic trick on McCarten’s part — and it feels like one at times, so deft is his handling of complex topics — is to convey the political significance of this transition of power while making it sound like a conversation between wary but mutually respectful peers.
In fact, as written, most of what the two characters say is for our ears, not for one another’s sake. For example, Benedict doesn’t need to be reminded that St. Peter (the church’s founder and its first pope) was married, or that priests weren’t asked to take vows of celibacy until the 12th century. Those details are presented for our benefit, and serve to suggest a rather simplistic solution to the Church’s sex scandals — which feature in news footage several times but are mostly tucked away as subtext. Mercy may be a virtue, but with a crime so unconscionable, the film challenges the institution’s forgiveness-oriented approach, which focuses on the sinner, rather than the victims.
At one point, Benedict asks Bergoglio to hear his confession, and the sound drops out for the most essential detail of McCarten’s imagined conversation, when Benedict is (presumably) about to acknowledge his failure to deal with problem priests. Poetically enough, this scene has been staged in the Room of Tears, a private space behind the Sistine Chapel accessible only by popes. In a production that required a mind-boggling combination of practical sets and seamless CG set extensions, Meirelles commissioned the Sistine Chapel itself to be built at Cinecittà Studios, as it serves as the most stunningly conceivable backdrop to the core segment of the conversation: Bergoglio shares how he’d do things differently if he were pope, finally clearing his conscience about not taking a stand against Argentina’s military dictatorship on the 1970s.
Screenwriter McCarten may be most focused on the sex abuse scandals, but for South American director Meirelles, the painstaking (and necessarily painful) re-creations of assassinations, arrests and “disappearances” clearly resonate as important enough to occupy a significant (if somewhat confusing) portion of the film. By contrast, mentions of Benedict’s own controversial past — namely, the German native’s enrollment in the Hitler Youth at the time of his seminary studies — are limited to a couple stray uses of the word “Nazi.”
In any case, “The Two Popes” isn’t nearly as concerned with either of these men’s individual pasts as it is with the Church’s future. And when it comes time to consider what’s at stake, the movie goes big, reminding why the pope can be the world’s greatest ally — a leader in knocking down walls (the movie’s looking at you, Trump), respecting those without resources, protecting the planet and unifying its inhabitants. While its subject may be religious, “The Two Popes” doesn’t want to convert the viewer. Rather, as an extraordinary piece of writing — and an even more impressive showcase for its actors — it eloquently communicates the importance of giving people something to believe in.