Film Review: The Two Popes, 2019.

Length: 126mins Budget: 40m Year:  2019

Now streaming on Netflix

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Anthony Hopkins & Jonathan Pryce


Plot: The story revolves around two Popes, the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) who is looking for a successor in Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis (Pryce). These two Popes, Benedict and Bergoglio, have two opposing views of the future of the Catholic Church; the former conservative and traditional the latter progressive and evolving. We first meet the two at the election of the new Pope, Pope Benedict, soon after the death of Pope Jean Paul. The narrative takes the audience forward in time where Bergoglio, who is wanting to resign, flies out to The Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict – who coincidentally has sent for him. Benedict is hesitant to accept his resignation because of his own motives in wanting Bergoglio to take over as Pope. This is because of the perceptions and politics if Bergoglio was to resign in light of their opposing views.


The film starts out in a very purposeful stylistic manner during the election of the new pope. Fast cuts, repetition, close-ups sending up the archaic nature of the election process, emphasizing a need for change. In this sequence the film-making gets your attention, coupled with the rows of Cardinals doused in red inter-cut with “real” media footage. The Two Popes almost feels like a punchy satire, indeed this is how the film has been sold.

The films soon sidesteps into its main inquiry adopting an intimate realism in its depictions of a church in ideological crisis in the face of modernity. This is represented in the dialogue exchanges of the two popes, personifying ideological opposition within these characters. This is The Two Pope’s downfall and in some respects leaving the film exposed.

It soon becomes apparent that The Two Popes objective is to humanize the Catholic Church and its ideals through its lead roles. A human characterization that seeks redemption within the modern. The Popes on the screen are real people in the abstract, they exist in terms of what they represent in the ideals of the church. When packaged as human with traits and flaws raises the question of the motives of the film when presenting the abstract in such a personified manner.

The film uses the genre of the buddy-cop movie, opposites of the same ‘coin’. The two banter over football, the Beatles and drinking. They dance together and enjoy Abba. How charming; but it’s the ‘coin’ which has propagated questionable blind rhetoric, not the faces of the ‘coin’s’ sides. The Church within the text of Two Popes circumvents meaningful scrutiny within this astute humanizing treatment. As such the film acts like a friendly study lacking in teeth – far from the satire it promised.

The film is based on a play and feels very much like a two-hander for the stage. It shrewdly weaves in at opportune moments for Bergoglio back-story in the form of a series of flashbacks. Its strategy is for us to understand Bergoglio character: who he is today and how his principles were formed during the Argentina military junta through the trails of his integrity – an honourable confession of sorts to the viewer. However, when the audience is focused on the evils of one right-wing regime the sins of the Church are by-passed in favour of the emotion that makes Bergoglio all too human.

Because of the theatre nature of The Two Popes it allows for some incredible performances, notably Jonathan Pryce. You never once question the skill on display in providing an unseen dimension to the Pope’s character, and by extension the human side of the Catholic Church. Hopkins’ power is present but so are his ticks – only this time wrapped up in white ropes of Popes regalia. Hopkins has got it down to a tee: repeating the last part said to him in a questioning manner, failing that, he mumbles with an air of gravities.

Production Design of the Sistine Chapel

Performance is rivalled by the production design which is just as astonishing and believable. The aesthetics, bright, bold in its designs and very colourful. The colour is in the design and has not been graded. It feels ‘real’ and allowed to breath in its brilliance. Almost like the film crew had been granted permission to take the audience into the Sistine chapel, to give them a personal guided tour in the company of two Popes. The look and feel of the chapel and its textures are so lifelike in its details. The edit cuts to the paintings on the chapel walls at select moments for visual comparisons to help reinforce the rhetoric the two Popes shoot at each other. You can almost feel the flaking paint. A golden bull for example when discussing banking. However, the Sistine Chapel on screen is a reproduction, it was built on a sound-stage to imitate the real chapel. The Pope within the text is still a representation of an idea despite the allocated human frailties. This brilliant illusion, ‘real’ in its production design, provides a portrait of a realism: a noble realism of philosophical choices that the characters, and by extension, the church wrestles with. The representation of the church’s ‘truth’ is perceived as is: in the supposed relatable flawed morality of characters within the the ‘real’ space. The Two Popes gives its characters a spiritual burden that they must carry making the audience empathize with their religious task rather than question the ills of the church. Commissioned Portraits of royalty used to omit boils and warts for a favourable realism, The Two Popes does the same through the medium of film.

The shot design opts for wides allowing for the production design which the film is very proud of. Sometimes framing characters to the edges so as to see the work that went into the recreation rather than framing for character motivation. 50mm lens are used for conversations and interactions which creates a sense of natural perspective, reinforcing the confidence in the representation. We hang-out nonchalantly and shoot the religious philosophical breeze over truth, scripture and semantics.

Is Morality fixed or fluid ?– ‘a church that marries the spirit of the age is widowed in the next’

Narrative, though charming watching the actor’s battle out dialogue while giving nuance to character, lacks a clear central conflict. This can make The Two Popes strenuous to view. There are subtle stakes but no risk of jeopardy. Both characters are contrasting but never compromised. Benedict though in opposition to Bergoglio, is not an obstacle to change in which Bergoglio must overcome- ironically Benedict is the agent of change. Nonetheless, the enjoyment comes from the performance’s interplay. No other two actors would have made the film as engaging and lifelike regardless of the lesson in theology

Debating scripture: Pryce & Hopkins the spitting image of Pope Francis & Pope Benedict

The two Popes absolve each other after their confessions; is The Two Popes seeking modernity’s forgiveness on the church’s behalf after its bias 2 hour confession. It shows a level of self-awareness in its existential dilemma but it feels the need to provide lip service than to delve deeper into its washing-line of abhorrent complicities. Child Sex abuse, its views on homosexually, use of condoms all get name-checked but the film’s reasoning is charming rather than critical inquiry. The Catholic Church’s abuse record is skirted over and The Two Popes never holds the church to account in any meaningful manner. Nor does it explore Benedict’s Nazi accusations in the same means it portrays Bergoglio involvement with the Argentinian junta but rather notes it in passing. Two Popes never really feels remorseful in its representations but instead pitiful.

Bergoglio signals progression and change to mirror the world’s own current values. We see visual cues to establish reform, for example his choice in pontiff footwear. But the question remains – how much of it is relevant in the church’s growing irrelevance. Is The Two Popes tokenistic in a changing world; ‘What damage will I do if I remain’?

As the preverbal buck stops with the Pope; what he represents should never be humanized in an empathic manner.

Two Popes is never brave enough for such a detailed inquiry. Instead very safe. The church’s confession within The Two Popes is hallow, like PR spin.

It is an accomplished apologist.

Don’t be too charmed.

Three and half Popes out of five

The Two Popes watch Argentina Vs Germany in the world cup

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