When you sit and think about it, the premise is quite compelling: what if there were two popes?
It reads like an absurdist satire, probably because the way the papacy has worked for centuries renders two popes impossible. While papal resignations aren’t unprecedented (although you’d have to flip back to the 13th century to find one), it was largely unthinkable. That was until March of 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world by stepping down after eight years, and was succeeded by Pope Francis. For the first time in modern history, there were two popes, and a world of possibility opened up: what does a world with two Holy Fathers look like? What would happen if they met? Would they get along? Heaven, are popes allowed to not get along?
The Two Popes runs with that ball, imagining how the two most influential men in Catholicism might get on. While the two men first meet as cardinals during the 2005 papal election, they don’t truly engage until 2012, seven years into Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. Archbishop Jorge Bergolio (Jonathan Pryce) wants to resign for a simpler life as a parish priest, and travels to Rome to make his request to Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). The audience quickly devolves into a battle over the Church’s future, with Benedict’s staunch conservatism and distant demeanor clashing with Bergolio’s progressivism and populist modesty. After that testy first meeting, the two men spend the next few days getting to know each other, while Bergolio’s repeated requests for Benedict to accept his resignation are ignored. Benedict’s refusal to accept Bergolio’s resignation is purposeful: in the wake of embarrassing Vatican leaks and the raging child sex abuse scandal engulfing the Church, Benedict intends to resign, with Bergolio serving as his successor and the future of the Catholic faith.
The Two Popes isn’t especially interested in the global implications of such a decision, per se. Rather, director Fernando Meirelles seeks to strip away the rich fabrics and jewels that shroud these extraordinary men and find what makes them ordinary. To do that, Meirelles first deconstructs much of the papal mythos, with choices that can either be read as quirky but deferential, or dangerously close to outright irreverence. He soundtracks the 2005 papal vote with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, and stages a lunch break like a high school cafeteria, with cardinals gossiping about each other as Benedict does his best impersonation of Election’s Tracy Flick. The film’s style is just as fluid, flitting between documentary – with real news footage – and straightforward narrative, sometimes within a scene. Meirelles’ choices have their charms, but the film’s tone can be inconsistent at times. Is The Two Popes a straight drama, or something closer to dramedy? A case can be made for both, and that tension can be confusing.
And yet, that confusion feels justifiable when The Two Popes hunkers down on its two papal subjects. Although it’s natural to examine Benedict and Bergolio as proxies for the future of the Church, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay favors the story of two men who, despite their spiritual callings, are just as capable of the vices that define us as human beings. The film is best when those two threads intertwine, as they do in that terse first meeting at the summer residence. Passions flare as Benedict and Bergolio discuss the Church’s tenuous state, but burning at the edges are embers of personal jealousy and resentment, made more complicated by the deference their positions require. The presence of a missed opportunity – to have them expound on the Church’s sex abuse scandals, among other issues, and grapple with either their ignorance or complicity – is palpable. In its place are genuinely enjoyable moments of connection and friendship between the popes, bonding over piano and pizza, and opening up about their pasts. Despite the title, it’s Bergolio who dominates the narrative space, his time in Argentina during the Dirty War and how it crippled his leadership ambitions fully explored through flashbacks. Benedict, a man largely shrouded in mystery and innuendo, is left frustratingly opaque. He expresses profound loneliness, and is called a Nazi twice, but there’s no real attempt to explain the case for either. Bergolio and Benedict’s friendship is delightful, but the impact would’ve been greater had both sides been treated equally as men and symbols.
For all its narrative shortcomings and tonal whiplash, The Two Popes does give us Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, which is more than worth the stream. Their performances and chemistry keep the film firmly grounded, and both handily capture the essence of their respective spiritual leaders. Pryce’s Bergolio is a warm and compassionate presence, brimming with the easygoing spirit and humor that would make the future Pope Francis wildly popular. Anthony Hopkins might have the tougher role, given how little is on the page for him compared to Pryce, but the Oscar winner rallies with a performance of great empathy. His Benedict feels out of step with the world around him, practically chafing against the modern references and casual behavior surrounding him. And yet, Hopkins conveys a real yearning to be as well-liked as Bergolio, even when he insists that he’s above such things. Separately, they are excellent, but they really come alive in their scenes together, richly layering their interactions like only two masterclass actors can.
The Two Popes is a strange, but charming. Its inconsistent tone and narrative imbalance prevents the film from fully working, but thanks to Pryce and Hopkins’ performances, Meirelles does succeed in humanizing Popes Benedict and Francis, endearing them to an audience that increasingly values authentic connection over pomp and mystery. It’s hard to find fault with a film that has the world’s most consequential spiritual leaders chowing down on Vatican City pizza.