Want to see a master class in acting? Watch Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins show how it’s done in The Two Popes, a fiercely moving and surprisingly funny provocation that pivots on speculative conversations between the German John Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins), and Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pryce), the future Pope Francis. In Anthony McCarten’s beautifully written script, the two men — Benedict a lofty aristocrat who prefers classical music, Bergoglio a humble servant with a thing for ABBA — struggle to find a unifying bond. They feel each other out in a litany of languages — English, Latin, Italian, Spanish — during a verbal game of liturgical chess that cuts to the heart of the division within the Catholic Church.
Dull? Not a bit. In 2013, Benedict rocked 1.2 million Catholics by becoming the first pope since 1415 to resign. But in this imagining, before he goes, the conservative Benedict takes measure of his presumed successor, who wants to initiate progressive reforms. Actually, Bergoglio would prefer to retire, a decision that Benedict mistakenly takes as a rebuke of his leadership. “Have enough respect to show me your real anger,” says the Pontiff. Since the 2005 death of Pope John Paul II, who served for 26 years, Bergoglio had weighed life as a private person among his devoted flock. Vatican resistance to his request has kept him in place.
The film makes a few attempts to sketch in the lives of the two men before their rise in the church hierarchy. Bergoglio remains tormented by his failure to take action against Argentina’s military oppression in the 1970s, when those who resisted were made to disappear. For Benedict, it’s his participation in Hitler Youth during his seminary years that comes back to haunt him.
Under the kinetic direction of Brazilian firebrand Fernando Meirelles (City of God), The Two Popes impresses not just for its stimulating intellectual byplay but as a movie that really moves. Cinematographer Cèsar Charlone and editor Fernando Stutz excel at bringing a you-are-there feeling to the proceedings. The church pageantry is gorgeously rendered, as is the voting on a new pope by the college of cardinals. Meirelles commissioned the Sistine Chapel to be recreated at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, and used computer wizardry to fill in when shooting at real locations was inconvenient or impossible, such as the Room of Tears, an area behind the Sistine Chapel accessible only by popes and the place where Bergoglio hears Benedict’s confession (a privilege the audience is denied).
Ultimately, this Netflix movie rivets and resonates through the performances of its two lead actors. The rigor and bracing wit of McCarten’s script shows how problem-priest scandals and political intrigue challenge the faith of these two popes. But it’s really their human fallibility that draws us to them. Through their miraculous performances, Pryce and Hopkins show that building walls is the real unforgivable sin.