The big news for Netflix has been the release of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest mobster epic which reunites Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Following closely behind it, out now in cinemas on limited release and scheduled to land on the streaming service on December 20, The Two Popes is another Netflix in-house production bringing acting heavyweights together. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play the pontiffs of the title, Hopkins as Benedict XVI, Pryce as Pope Francis.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardner), the film revolves around two imagined conversations between the men, shortly before Benedict’s resignation in 2013. The first takes place at Castel Gandolfo and the second in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is in Rome, and it is he who has the intention to quit his day job. He wants to hand in his resignation letter to Benedict, a good few years before he is due to reach the compulsory retirement age. It quickly becomes clear that this is a move that will not be countenanced and, in fact, by the final scenes it is Benedict who will be calling it a day.
The Two Popes is not a film that’s keen on subtlety, or in exploring its two protagonists and the Church at large in any great depth. Broad brushstrokes are Meirelles’s favoured method of artistic expression here. Francis is the football-loving man of the people who takes the time to chat to one of the Castel Gandolfo gardeners about cooking tips, and is keen to bring the Church into the modern world. Benedict is the Latin-speaking grump who hasn’t heard Yellow Submarine and will not countenance Church reform.
The script never manages to shake off this simplification, or its sense of speculative artifice. There is little attempt to bring nuance to either of the men’s worldviews, with the dice firmly weighted in Francis’s favour. Motives for Benedict’s resignation are proffered – VatiLeaks, his handling of abuse cases – but never properly explored.
The raising of the abuse crisis is particularly problematic, as the future Pope is shown to be intent on sorting out this terrible scourge once and for all, and, it is implied, will do a better job than the excuse-making Benedict. Notwithstanding Benedict’s track record on tackling abuse while in office, this is an awkward take on some of the questions Pope Francis is currently facing in this area.
Halfway through, we also get flashback sequences explaining the Argentine’s time under the junta, and what he did or didn’t do to protect his fellow Jesuit priests. These sections feel rushed and are banally shot in black and white – with the point they try to make, about the way this period shaped the man who would become Pope Francis, feeling like a stretch on the part of writer Anthony McCarten.
The attempt to force reality to fit a pre-ordained narrative is a problem throughout, and seems most obvious towards the end when we get a montage of Francis’s international papal visits. These trips are presented as if they are an innovation on the part of the current Pontiff to take the Church to the people, which is of course nonsense.
What saves The Two Popes from total disaster, and just about holds the attention, are the performances of its two leading men. Hopkins is excellent, giving a controlled portrayal of Benedict when at times the screenplay is desperate for him to play the pantomime villain – or even a Bond one.
(As Cardinal Bergoglio approaches Castel Gandolfo by helicopter, the building looks every inch the hideout of one of 007’s archenemies.) Pryce is more than a match for Hopkins, and they both elevate what is, in the end, rather thin material. They also handle the film’s lurching shifts in tone, from serious matters to knockabout comedy, pretty well. One minute we are hearing about the abuse crisis, the next Benedict’s Fitbit is going off.
Meirelles clearly wants to say something insightful about the Church, but by the end The Two Popes dissolves into a Vatican-set buddy movie – something that is never more in evidence than in the bizarre closing scene that brings Benedict and Francis together to watch the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, the pair of them kicking back on the sofa, clinking beer glasses and bantering away like old mates.
Watching The Two Popes made me pine for HBO’s hugely underrated 2016 series The Young Pope, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Jude Law, which, despite being set in a totally fictional Vatican, managed to engage with Church politics and history in a far more detailed and provocative way.