Review: ‘The Two Popes’ is provocative, entertaining

When I heard that a movie was being made named The Two Popes I was intrigued. I was further interested when I heard that Benedict XVI and Francis would be the titular popes. A little bit of a disclaimer, Pope Benedict XVI is one of my favorite popes and so I truly wanted to view this film, but I want you the reader to know that this is my bias, which I will try to keep in check during this review.

The movie is from the writer Anthony McCarten and the director Anthony Meirelles both of whom who have done some fine film making. McCarten wrote the play that the movie is based on. He has gained wide acclaim for writing movies like The Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Meirelles has directed films such as City of God and The Constant Gardener. He has produced many films and television programs in his native Brazil.

The Two Popes is not based on a true story but is a creative imagining of what might have taken place if the two popes had met just before Benedict’s abdication. The other reason I wanted to see this film as is it stars two actors I really enjoy watching, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis.

These two men are giants of the craft of acting and it was a pleasure to watch them play these two important figures of the 21st-century Church. I’m not sure they could have gotten two actors that looked more like their subjects than these men. It was great casting.

The film is visually stunning as well, from the scenes in Argentina to the amazing scenes in the Vatican and at the papal palace of Castel Gandolfo.

Photo: Netflix

An interesting fact from the production: Filmmakers were not allowed to film in the Sistine Chapel so they recreated the chapel to scale on a soundstage. Both Hopkins and Pryce inhabit the men they are portraying, and it is easy to be lulled into thinking these events are true, but most of the film comes from McCarten’s imagination.

The relationship of the two men grows over the course of a weekend when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is summoned to Rome to speak with Benedict about his desired resignation as archbishop of Buenos Aires. At first the two men do not get along at all with Benedict even eating dinner alone the first night at the papal summer residence instead of inviting his guest to dine with him.

Most of the film comes from McCarten’s imagination.

A sympathetic nun tells the cardinal that the pope always dines alone. In fact, he prefers it that way. The film shines a light on the loneliness of being pope and how it weighed heavily on Benedict. The writer and director go to great pains to show how each man is different.

However, sometimes that seems forced. As their time together continues, they warm to each other. They begin to open up to one another about what they believe and how they see the world, the Church, and the Church’s role within the world.

It’s all based on assumptions of what the conversations might have been like and sometimes it feels like you’re a fly on the wall. At other times it seems a little hokey, and you wonder what the writer was trying to do with a particular scene.

Sometimes it feels like you’re a fly on the wall.

I did enjoy watching this movie and I got invested in the story of two men from very different backgrounds and how their worldview had shaped their lives in service to the Church. The film does focus on the life of Francis a little more in flashbacks and this movie’s strength is that we get to know Pope Francis a little better than we get to know Pope Benedict XVI. If I were going to say this film had a weakness it would be that.

We get more insight into Pope Francis and because this was filmed for Netflix I wonder why they didn’t make it a miniseries instead of a single film. A miniseries could have given more depth to the Pope Benedict character.

This was a difficult subject matter to film, it gets into the themes of forgiveness and mercy and how we have to learn to forgive ourselves, as well as others. I think framing those issues around this fictional conversation helps to put them into focus for the audience.

I do think Catholics will like this film and should see it. However, remember that the majority of the movie is fictional and do not let that hurt your enjoyment of a wonderful film. The Two Popes is provocative but also entertaining and worth your time.

To learn more:

Anthony HopkinsFr. Chip HinesJonathan PryceNetflixPope Benedict XVIPope FrancisTwo Two PopesWorth Watching
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