Religious resentment dominates the order of service in Fernando Meirelles‘ The Two Popes, an adaptation of acclaimed screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s play about the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Commencing with the death of John Paul II and the election of his successor Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) over progressive rival Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the film then travels forward seven years to when a weary Bergoglio travels to see Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) so that he can grant his request for retirement, reviving old wounds. As a two-handed face-off between the old and new guards of the Catholic church, The Two Popes has a certain cultural and historical appeal, the early debate between the clergymen addressing the crux of the church’s reluctance to move forward. Unwisely, there are many flashbacks to Bergoglio’s past as a young priest in Argentina, which provide some context for his beliefs, but are awkwardly inserted, at times appearing as wispish snippets and, in other sections, threatening to take over the film entirely.
As a South American, Meirelles clearly seems keen to couch this story of succession within the larger context of Argentinian politics, and in doing so, injecting something more cinematic into this stagey encounter of two old men effectively wandering around the Vatican having a chat. McCarten, penning the script based on his own work, never really interrogates why Benedict begins to waver from his own orthodox course so readily, while elsewhere the many gags which concern either the inability of the men to process 21st century culture or their unwitting embrace of it, lead to some pretty cheap laughs. Pryce brings a great deal of warmth to his hearty depiction of Bergoglio, embodying many of the qualities – compassion, understanding, patience – you would hope to see in a priest, while there is also a move to address the erosion of public trust for the clergy in the wake of the church’s child sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict himself admitting some blame in this. Unfortunately, Meirelles censors his confessional scene in a way that suggests he is concerned for its palatability, a hedging move which sadly typifies the failure of The Two Popes to break free of its safe, cuddly treatise on Catholicism.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.