REVIEW: The Two Popes (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Two Popes — Directed by Fernando Meirelles.

Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes is based on writer Anthony McCarten’s non-fiction work The Pope and inspired by the historic papal renunciation in 2013. Meirelles’ film is about a number of conversations between Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce). These conversations highlight the conservative and ‘progressive’ branches of the Catholic Church and the things that they have in common. These conversations are both incredibly interesting and surprisingly funny.

The conversations and great moments of which Meirelles’ latest film is made up appear to be fabrications. Films have a tendency to bend and dramatize true stories, and this is true for The Two Popes as well. Meirelles’ film is based on a screenplay from Bohemian Rhapsody and Darkest Hour writer Anthony McCarten, who, to put it lightly, is no stranger to fabrications in dramatizations (many articles have been written about his works’ historical accuracy or lack thereof), but his writing in The Two Popes might be my favorite work he has done. The moments are heartwarming and eye-opening, and the dialogue is both witty and thought-provoking. McCarten appears to have taken very many liberties with the true story for the purpose of entertainment, but, when you consider how private and secretive the lives of these men are, I think the fabrications are understandable and forgivable.

Other than the conversation scenes set in the hallowed halls of the Catholic Church, The Two Popes consists of several flashbacks to Argentina of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as scenes set in Argentina in the modern-day. Whenever Bergoglio, who is Argentinian, speaks in Spanish, the filmmaker has distractingly decided to dub Jonathan Pryce, and, in flashbacks, Bergoglio is played by a different actor. I totally understand that this is done to get some of the character’s culture into the performance, but it undeniably does take you out of the experience of watching the film. Sometimes it is better to just hire actors who can accurately portray a real person’s background and cultural heritage.

However, because Meirelles has hired actors like Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, audiences are treated to genuinely fully-formed performances from both seasoned actors. Pryce plays Bergoglio as a conscientious, modern, and progressive breath of fresh air, whereas Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI is traditional, conservative, out of touch, and inflexible in his beliefs. The film showcases the characters as being fallible humans just hoping for the same godly signs that the rest of us do. Both characters feel that they are destined to resign, and they are both adamant that the other absolutely must not. It is an actor’s showcase for both Hopkins and Pryce who are both in splendid form. Their interactions are thrilling and thought-provoking, and Hopkins and Pryce elegantly shift from tense debates about the Catholic Church to resting in their own private ways in the mundane world. Seeing Pryce and Hopkins go from arguing about the future of the Catholic Church to enjoying Fanta, football, and pizza together is just wonderful. It is equally entertaining to watch cardinals vote on the next pope while an Abba song is playing.

This film really took me by surprise. Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes is basically an odd-couple buddy dramedy about finding common ground disguised as a stale two-person drama. It features two truly excellent performances from Pryce and Hopkins, as well as several both heartwarming and intriguing scenes. I’m genuinely surprised by how delightful this biopic about forgiveness, common ground, and the Catholic Church was.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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