The Two Popes

Year: 2019
Studio: Netflix
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce

After the critical and commercial failure of Blindness, I'd assumed Fernando Meirelles had faded away, maybe returned to his native Brazil and toiled as a journeyman director, never to be heard of in Hollywood again.

It seemed a shame, because City of God marked the arrival of a blistering new talent. But if the experience of filmmakers from outside the US who are subsumed unceremoniously into the machine of Hollywood (like Roar Uthaug) is anything to judge by, he dodged a bullet.

Instead, the failure of Blindness was a blessing, because it apparently did send Meirelles back to his roots doing local language work at home, plying his trade as a producer and finding an even more vibrant voice as a director than Hollywood would have given him, because The Two Popes is the work of a very assured creative hand.

I never would have guessed I'd be interested in the story of the relationship between the two most recent leaders of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, having long since dismissed anything to do with institutional Catholicism as an ancient artifice of political power presiding over a dwindling following. In short, you expect anything to do with religion to make broad brush strokes about being out of touch, a crumbling relic beset by abuse from the political to the sexual.

But there are several elements you're wholly unprepared for, ones Meirelles uses to pull the rug out from under you. The first is the nuance. If you're in any way secular you're kind of horrified going in that you'll ever relate to European and South American religious leaders in their 80s, but the script beautifully humanises the struggle both men are going through alone, in their contrary positions and together.

By depicting the trappings, traditions and ceremony of Catholicism so reverently, you also feel an almost grudging respect for the power of belief systems and for the aesthetic beauty of such history and how wound up in art and heritage it all is.

But in the end – as they all say but which so few movies actually do – it comes down to characters. After the death of John Paul in 2005, the ambitious and conservative Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) is the clear frontrunner to succeed him.

After a lifetime of practical service and having seen the effect of increased secularism and the damage done by scandals like the paedophilia epidemic among Catholic priests, the more liberal Buenos Aires Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) isn't really interested, but he narrowly misses the position after coming in a close second in the vote.

Years later, Bergoglio, disillusioned with the continued slide in both popularity and honesty in his church, intends to resign his position. When The Vatican refuses, he goes to Rome to (virtually) hand his resignation letter over, but is instead summoned to visit Benedict, who delays and dithers while Bergoglio attempts to make his leaving official.

As he does so, Benedict engages Bergoglio in debate about the Church, faith and God, the discussions at first seeming to be combative as Bergoglio attempts to assert his position of political progression honestly while Benedict defends traditionalism and history.

The 'I quit' discussion goes on for several more days, the two men realising they're actually warming to each other (albeit in a stiffly formal way befitting their respective roles). In a weird fashion, they're becoming friends.

So it's to Bergoglio's shock that Benedict actually confides to him that he intends to resign the papacy, too old to continue with his duties and apparently with the time spent with Bergoglio having convinced him that change is necessary.

There's an extended series of flashbacks about Bergoglio's early life and career as he entered the Jesuit order and how he became tied up in the murderous military junta that overthrew Peron, trying to work with them rather than see his colleagues rounded up and murdered and being tarnished forever as a collaborator as a result.

That subplot is less interesting than the interplay between the two leads, but it establishes Bergoglio's assertion that he's not really worthy of the papacy. Together with Benedict's guilt over the failure of the church to address so many abuses and scandals, the pair do their best to understand and absolve each other of their very human failings, and history continued as we all saw with Bergoglio becoming Pope Francis.

The smart script, gorgeous and insightful production design are just the beginning. Pryce has an air of conviction but vulnerability you can't help but love, and it's always wonderful to see Hopkins actually acting rather than just showing up for a paycheque to play another slightly crazy father figure in a blockbuster.

It all makes you wish the pair were religious or political leaders instead of just actors. Like a lot of people in today's world, you might never have considered giving priests, popes or the church the time of day, but The Two Popes does what art is supposed to do – it makes you empathise with someone with whom you have nothing in common by showing you exactly what you have in common with them.

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