City Of God director Fernando Meirelles turns what is essentially a theatrical two-hander into a Papal drama that’s not quite a miracle, but still worth your time. The Two Popes sees reforming Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) summoned by conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) for an ecclesiastical chat. Little does Bergoglio know that the sitting Pope is thinking about stepping down.
From that description alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this will be as stuffy as a sermon, but it’s unexpectedly quite gripping. The film works best when it embraces its nature as a chamber piece: one set space featuring a theological sparring match across an ideological chasm that separates two holy men. The chemistry between Pryce and Hopkins is wonderful and Anthony McCarten’s script truly soars during their weighty and witty exchanges.
Frustratingly, the same script calls for numerous flashbacks, which grinds the momentum to a halt, and some may understandably take issue when thornier ground regarding the Catholic church’s record on child abuse, the Vatican’s sordid secrets and Joseph Ratzinger’s murky past is only coyly alluded to. Even if the narrative conceit was always more about the meeting of two minds, and never pretended to offer any real insights into these elements, something jars. The dramatic contrivance of fading out the volume when one crucial confession takes place works, but the last few minutes settle for a crowd-pleasing bromance, which feels too odd-couple cheerful considering the weight of real-life scandals.
Whatever qualms you may have regarding the film’s tone in its third act, the acting on display is always top-notch. Hopkins feels simultaneously fierce and fragile, while Pryce is effortlessly charming yet conceals a discernible well of sadness. It’s up for debate whether or not it’s worth shelling out to see The Two Popes on a big screen during its limited theatrical release or if a home viewing on Netflix at the end of the month will suffice, but what’s certain is that you won’t want to miss both thespians’ late-career highs.
The Two Popes | Directed by Fernando Meirelles (UK / Italy / Argentina / US, 2019), with Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce. Starts Dec 5 (limited release).
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