Review: “The Two Popes”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Two Popes” is the story of two men at an intellectual and spiritual crossroads.  Adapted by Anthony McCarten from his play “The Pope” and directed by Fernando Meirelles, the film maintains the intimacy of a stage production with some added cinematic flourishes, and is anchored by fantastic performances by its two leads.

Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) express their differing opinions on the role of the Church

The film opens in 2005 with the election of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).  Seven years after traveling to Rome for the election, Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce), disillusioned by the Catholic Church following the Vatican leaks scandal and the handling of priests engaging in pedophilia, returns for a meeting with the Pope, where he intends to resign as Archbishop.  The Pope refuses to accept Bergoglio’s resignation, believing it will reflect badly on the Church and on himself, but over the course of a couple of days the two argue and bond despite their differences.

Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) maintains his friendship with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins)

Benedict and Bergoglio are virtually the only characters in the film, with the exception of Juan Minujin, who plays young Bergoglio in flashbacks, as the older man reflects on how he entered the church and his potentially controversial past.  These flashbacks are essential to understanding Bergoglio’s reasoning, but they are also a long distraction from the relationship at the center of the story, and slow the film down quite a bit just as the audience is becoming invested in the dynamic between Benedict and Bergoglio.  But that dynamic is what makes the movie worth watching, as Hopkins and Pryce bring humanity to people who from afar seem larger than life.  They have genuine chemistry from their very first scene together.  McCarten’s script is filled with humor and honesty that endears its characters to the viewer.  It also takes big picture issues and examines them on a personal level, as both Benedict and Bergoglio wrestle with both change and tradition.

“The Two Popes” includes some big and beautiful set pieces that, combined with Meirelles appropriate use of close-ups and long-shots, emphasize both the growing closeness and the remaining distance between the two men.  Their struggles can be appreciated by any viewer and don’t require knowledge of Catholicism, although the film could have benefited from a shorter runtime and fewer flashbacks detracting from the main story.  Still, McCarten’s screenplay, as well as Hopkins and Pryce’s performances, are among the best of the year.

Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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