Film Review: “The Two Popes” Shines with the Light of Cinematic Inspiration

Film poster: “The Two Popes”

The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was, well, never. Sure, I was raised Episcopalian (in a High Anglican church, no less, which means confession was practiced, at times) but have since left the faith, seeing too much in this world to give me pause when it comes to human-devised religion. Yet here I am, about to sing high praise for a movie about two Catholic men of the cloth. And just not just priests, but the high pontiffs, themselves.

What’s that, you say? Pontiffs, as in plural? Yes, for if you remember, in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Ratzinger), resigned the papacy, recognizing that a conservative dogmatist like him was the wrong figurehead for an organization beset by a pedophilia scandal. Enter Cardinal Bergoglio (soon to become Pope Francis), a Jesuit from Argentina, who had previously, back in 2005, been considered as the reformers’ choice to replace the recently deceased John Paul II. Ratzinger prevailed, however, and so off Bergoglio went, back to South America. Fast forward 8 years to the rising tide of discontent with the Catholic Church, and suddenly a liberalizing pope seemed like a much better idea.

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in THE TWO POPES ©Netflix

Such is the premise of this delightful new film from director Fernando Meirelles (360), working from a fine script by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour). With Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce (The Wife) as Francis, and an excellent Juan Minujín (Recreo) as the young Bergoglio, The Two Popes not only imagines the conversations that these two men must have had in the lead-up to Benedict stepping down, but also offers a comprehensive look at the life of Francis. It is hardly the hagiography one might expect from a story so squarely on the reformer’s side, but the movie is all the more effective because of it, showing us the beauty of forgiveness and kindness, and how a willingness to change when required is the hallmark of greatness.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that sometimes the dialogue feels a little pat, as if McCarten is trying too hard to shoehorn each man’s beliefs into the perfect bon mot. Despite the occasional overscripting, however, The Two Popes shines with a light that, if not divine, is at least sacred in its homage to human flexibility (delivering a therefore subtle criticism of those rigid in their mindset). True, one could argue that not nearly enough attention is paid to the details of the child-abuse crisis that led to Francis’ ascension, but it’s there in the background, always. Foregrounded is the soul of Catholicism, and this atheist found it fascinating to watch.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in THE TWO POPES ©Netflix

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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