One of the most unpredictable and satisfying films of the year, The Two Popes represents a collaboration of great talents: writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour), director Fernando Mereilles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), and two of the finest actors on the planet, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.
The filmmakers disarm us with this sly piece of historical speculation about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in 2012, at an unprecedented moment in history when Benedict announced that he was stepping down, making way for a liberal successor. McCarten’s screenplay is witty and sharply observed. Benedict is under fire for financial improprieties at the Vatican and willful ignorance of the sex scandals that plague the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina has had a crisis of faith and wishes to resign, which requires the approval of his Pope. They meet at Pope Benedict’s summer home outside of Rome and discover that they are polar opposites. Benedict seems to have no sense of humor and is unwilling to accept change or compromise, while Bergoglio is a naturally charming man who shuns protocol and any signs of special treatment. He is also an avid football (soccer) fan. These powerful religious leaders share no common ground, it appears, and McCarten finds great humor in exploring their contrasting personalities.
But that is only the first chapter of the story. A long flashback sequence deepens and darkens our experience as we learn Bergoglio’s backstory and some of the reasons for his current emotional state. The light touch that characterizes the first portion of The Two Popes gives way to a serious examination of political turmoil in Argentina and the way its Cardinal chose to deal with it. Admirers of Pope Francis who don’t know about his life before ascending to the papacy may be taken back by the starkness of this episode and how it affected the man who is so admired today.
Like Peter Morgan, who has imagined relationships and dialogue involving everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Richard Nixon in his plays, films, and television series (from The Queen to Frost/Nixon and The Crown) Anthony McCarten has written a completely persuasive script and placed it in the hands of a director and stars who bring it to vivid life.
The Two Popes is a rare film that appeals to both the mind and the heart. I cannot recommend it highly enough.