In a variety of rooms, gardens and religious and historical sites in and around Rome, two elderly men walk, talk, dispute and, eventually, unexpectedly, find common ground. As films go, it doesn’t exactly sound like blockbuster material. In fact, the director’s own son has described it, teasingly, as “two old men sitting and talking about religion”.
Yet The Two Popes, Fernando Meirelles’s fictionalised account of a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI (Sir Anthony Hopkins), towards the end of his tenure, and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is winning accolades wherever it is shown. Hollywood’s Bible, Variety, has described the film as a “literate, exceptionally accurate drama”. Its British counterpart, Empire, has praised its “great writing, smart discretion and late career-high performances”, and even the Daily Mail – not an organ generally known for its religious fervour – has chimed in, conceding that it is “way more entertaining than non-believers may anticipate”.
At the heart of the film’s success is a thoughtful script by New Zealand-born playwright Anthony McCarten (also known for The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour), and extraordinary performances by the actors who portray the two pontiffs,
Sir Anthony Hopkins, stooped and crotchety as the ageing Pope Benedict, and his fellow Welshman Jonathan Pryce, lanky and laid-back in a role he seems born to play: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man with whom he shares a startling physical resemblance.
“People have been talking about this ever since he became Pope,” admits the 72-year-old actor of his doppelgänger (who is 82). “They have been posting images on the internet of the two of us together and, yes, there definitely is a physical likeness. And I’ll tell you something that’s even stranger, which is that there’s a scene towards the end of the film where I’m walking out in the Sistine Chapel, and Fernando said to me: ‘You know, it’s extraordinary how you’ve come to embody the whole man in this film. You even walk like him, which is amazing.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him that for all of my life, people have said to me: ‘Why are you walking with a limp?’ I just walk like that naturally.”
He says that, physical likeness aside, he has been a fan of Francis for some time. “He’s a complicated man and that makes for an interesting character study. He isn’t a saintly figure all the way through – he’s still seen as a divisive figure in Argentina because of his possible collaboration with the colonels – and that makes him interesting to me. I think that as a Pope he has a relevance to the rest of the world, and I also think – although what do I know, because I’m not Catholic – that he’s also a relevant figure inside the Catholic Church, for the millions who have left the Church over the years, but now might be starting to come back again. Of course, there’s only so much he can do, but I think he does inspire people and I admire him greatly.”
Jonathan, born and brought up in the village of Carmel, near Holywell, North Wales, says that Catholicism has been at least a tangential part of his life since he was a boy. “I grew up as a Protestant and Holywell is mostly Welsh Presbyterian, but there’s also a shrine there to St Winefride, who was beheaded for her faith and had her head restored by St Beuno. There’s a monastery in town and a convent and Catholic church – and I was particularly aware of the Catholic church when I was a teenager because all the prettiest girls in town were Catholic and they all went there.”
He admits, with regret, that relationships between the two factions in town were not always friendly. “I wouldn’t say there was hatred, but there was definitely rivalry.
We regarded the Catholics as being very … well, we always want to blame ‘the Other’, don’t we, and just as these days we blame our austerity in Britain on what’s happening in Europe, back then, we Presbyterians always blamed our ills on the fact that the Catholic Church always seemed to take care of its own.
“On the other hand, my sister converted to Catholicism, and I used to go to Mass with her and I loved the sense of ritual that we didn’t have in the Protestant church.
So I had an ambivalent attitude towards it, really. To this day, whenever I’m in New York, I go to St Patrick’s Cathedral and sit and meditate because the sense of spirituality in places like that is important to me.’
He acknowledges that when he was first approached for the film, he had his reservations. “My agent called and said, ‘They want you to play Pope Francis.’ My first instinct was so say no, because I didn’t think I’d be up to playing a living Pope,” he recalls. “But, although I’m not religious, I did know that I liked Francis, and that, taken in coupling with Anthony McCarten’s extraordinary script, drew me towards it. And the clinching thing was to work with Fernando, because once I knew he was going to be directing, I knew it was going to be something that would have an energy and a life to it and that would be unlike any other film about two popes – not that there are too many of those out there.”
He even – somewhat to his own surprise – gained some spiritual benefits from playing Francis. “Before we started filming, Fernando asked both Tony and me were we religious, and I said, ‘No, but I fully expect to be by the end of this film!’ ”
He laughs and then stops. “But something did happen to me while we were making it,” he adds, quietly. “We did some filming in Buenos Aires and there was a Jesuit priest there who had been helping us with the rituals and all that sort of thing. And I went to say goodbye to him before I left for the airport, and he said, ‘Before you go, can I bless you?’ And I almost burst into tears when he did that because no one’s ever blessed me before that, or since, sadly. I almost cry when I’m thinking of it now, actually. You couldn’t help but be moved spiritually in some way by making this film, it’d be hopeless to try and deny it.”
For Anthony Hopkins, spirituality is, and has always been, a complicated matter.
“I didn’t grow up with religion, because my father was an atheist, my mother was an agnostic, so I never went to church,” he says. “But I used to go into churches when I was grown up and in bad shape – I’d go into St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and think, ‘What are they doing?’
“And I did once talk to a priest about becoming a Catholic, many, many years ago, maybe 30 years. Something was troubling me at the time. I didn’t know what, but I knew I was troubled, and I said to someone I knew in London who was a Catholic, ‘I think I would like to become a Catholic too.’ So this person put me in touch with a priest who happened to be a psychiatrist and I went to a meeting with him and he said: ‘Why do you want to become a Catholic?’ I said: ‘I don’t know.’ And he said: ‘Well, if you don’t know why, don’t. You can’t just become a Catholic, there’s more to it than that.’ He realised that I had some problems in my life with alcoholism and all, but he just said: ‘Forget it, you’re human, enjoy your life.’ ”
Sir Anthony (“Please! Just call me Tony”) has been vocal in the past about his lengthy – and he says so far successful – struggle with alcoholism. He says today that, although he still has yet to find comfort in any one specific religion, one thing that he has learned over the course of his 81 years is that there is more to the universe than we understand.
“I used to think I was such hot stuff,” he remembers now, laughing. “I was too smart to believe in anything. That’s what I thought. I’m glad I’m not like that now – I now understand enough to know that I’m pretty clueless, and that’s a wonderful feeling. But I will tell you one story, which was in 1973, I was in Jerusalem, making a film with Ben Gazzara. And before I started filming, they put me in touch with a driver who drove me up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. An American priest welcomed me, a young man with a beard, and he said: ‘The Via Dolorosa is here, where Jesus carried the Cross.’ Now, I wasn’t a believer, but I went into the Church and saw these nuns prostrate on the ground … and something very strange stirred in me. I don’t know what it was because, as I said, I was too smart to believe, but there was something all right.”
Significantly, he says that it was just over a year later that he found the wherewithal to confront his personal demon of alcoholism.
“I suddenly had a revelation about my life. I realised that it’s out of my hands altogether, and that I was acceptable and had been accepted, even though I don’t feel acceptable. And I don’t know whether you call that grace or what you call it, but after that thought came to me, what 44 years ago, I thought, ‘Right, that’s it, now I can go on living.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I’m an old sinner, like everyone else, but I try to be good. That’s all you can do, and, like the man said 2,000 years ago, let the person who has not sinned cast the first stone. I’ve come to the understanding that there is something out there that is vaster than myself, and yes, I call it God, and yes, I do believe in it, and yes, I am now happier than I have ever been.”
Both men agree that their hope for The Two Popes is that, along with providing entertainment, it will also provide at least a little food for thought. “What I really want,” says Jonathan, “is for people to walk out of this film feeling a better person, not only about themselves but about their fellow man. That’s what all actors want from their work anyway, for people to leave the theatre having had an experience that will not only have provided entertainment for a couple of hours, but also continue to enhance their lives in some way. And I really hope that this film does that.”
Gabrielle Donnelly is a freelance journalist
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