Saturday 9 April 2022

Movie Review: The Two Popes (2019)

A drama spiced with wit and some humour, The Two Popes is an exquisitely written study of two spiritual veterans sparring at their destiny's crossroads.

In 2005, Pope John Paul II dies. As expected, the conservative Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) is elected to succeed him as Pope Benedict XVI. But surprisingly, the reform-minded Argentinian Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) receives a handful of votes.

By 2012, the Vatican is embroiled in a corruption scandal. In his native Argentina, Bergoglio is disillusioned with the Church's direction and submits his resignation papers, but receives no answer. Instead he is summoned to the Vatican for a series of meetings with Benedict. The two men are stubbornly attached to opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to doctrine and the need to modernize, but over several days they grow close. In confidence, Benedict then reveals a shocking intention.

Based on actual events with plenty of fictionalization, The Two Popes is a biographical drama set at a turbulent time in papal history. Writer Anthony McCarten sharpens his pencil to produce an uncompromising script spiked with humour, and director Fernando Meirelles finds a happy medium between theatrical trappings and esteemed locales (including a recreation of the Sistine Chapel) to maintain visual interest. In the deferential and solemn world of Vatican etiquette, the two men are rounded into full and flawed humans.

Without imparting judgment, McCarten does not shy away from the Church's troubles. A long and mishandled history of child abuse, the financial scandal, and the Church's fading relevance repeatedly thread into the debate between the two men. The pace and extent of reforms is a central chism, Ratzinger and Bergoglio representing two opposing attitudes and both men wondering if they belong in the future.

The film is an actors' showpiece, and both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are engaged and in top form, juggling multiple languages in virtuoso performances. Hopkins brings a steeliness to Ratzinger, while Pryce allows Bergoglio's emotions to reside closer to the surface. They confidently navigate complex arcs fueled by deep-seated awareness of imperfections bundled under heavy robes.

Bergoglio's backstory is more prominent, and in flashbacks his experiences as a young man then as an emerging church leader in Argentina are revealed, culminating in a painful test of faith during the country's descent into military dictatorship. Argentinian actor Juan Minuj√≠n brings bristling fervour to the role of the younger Bergoglio, his loyalties torn in an impossible conflict between survival and spirituality. Brave enough to seek people behind symbols, The Two Popes reveals hearts often obscured by ceremony.

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