Do the principles of God change with the changing tides of culture? This theological question is at the core of The Two Popes. As unanswerable as that question may be, it presents a somewhat-engaging largely-scattered platform for the spiritual sparring that Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins devour. (Over-)directed by Fernando Meirelles with the kind of hyperactivity that worked so well in his kinetic breakthrough City of God, it’s that same trait that unfortunately is not helped (at all) by Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, which attempts to stuff a life’s worth of history in between a few conversations.
That aforementioned life at the center of this story — which takes place over many decades, but mostly 2012 — is that of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pryce), who is not shy about his desire for the Catholic Church to change their regressive, conservative ways. As the world’s issues seemingly grow tougher and tougher, and as it begins to wall each other off — literally and figuratively — Catholicism followers begin to dwindle. In order to attract more followers, Bergoglio believes the only path forward is through change. The thing is he’s seeking to retire from his Cardinalship, but first he needs Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins), the man of the highest cloth, to sign off. The problem is that Benedict and Bergoglio don’t exactly get along. Soon Bergoglio is invited to visit the Pope that and its there, with their diverging opinions, that their meeting leads to heated quarrels about dogma and the future of the Catholic Church. But as Benedict quizzes Bergoglio about his theological views, he eventually drops the bombshell: he’s decided to pack it in. The horrified Bergoglio insists that doing so would damage the Church immeasurably; not knowing the future, as we do, he’s slow to realize that Benedict is essentially grooming him for the job. Over a couple days, the once and future popes bicker, reminisce, share a pizza and some Fantas, discuss their respective passions for classical music, talk the World Cup, and marvel at the beauty of the Sistine Chapel.
But as all that happens, McCarten repeatedly jumps back to different parts of Bergoglio’s life, revealing the reasons that fuel his hesitancy for accepting the job offer. These extended sections feature a young Bergoglio (Juan Minujín), who’s ostracized by fellow Jesuit priests when he doesn’t take a clear stand against the brutal military dictatorship in 1970s Argentina. These flashbacks, however, ultimately come across elongated, sluggish, and at complete tonal odds when compared to the more affable scenery-chewing of our two leads. Watching Pryce and Hopkins battle it out has its charms, with the two actors occasionally opting for a slew of languages, as subtitles are employed — a decision to which most Hollywood-backed historical dramas don’t adhere (Pryce, at times, though does seem to be dubbed over). As entertaining as some of their discussions can be, the end result does often leave a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity.
With that, it’s not entirely surprising that the writer of such antiquated, timid dramas as The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody would script a film that suggests the world is now in a great place because two men in high power were able to become friends despite their differing world-views, but the way certain issues are brought up only to check boxes feels wholly insincere. During one conversation, Bergoglio presses the Pope about the decades of sex abuse scandals in the church and immediately after it’s briefly mentioned, Meirelles fades out the dialogue and slots in a rapid-fire montage linking these travesties to images of pain in the Renaissance art throughout the Vatican. It’s a truly bizarre choice and one of many sections in which Meirelles’ fondness for over-direction skirts real issues, opting instead for crowd-pleasing quarrels.
Cinematographer César Charlone joins the club with Meirelles, as he shoots the film with the subtly of a leaf-blower. Beware of the erratic handheld camera movements, complete with smash zooms and seemingly every format imaginable, including glaringly clean digital (that’s so clean that it’s practically ugly), actual archival footage, new footage meant to look like archival footage, black-and-white footage, and a 70s-style documentary look. It’s puzzling decision, after puzzling decision, as if this already-scattershot approach was intended to produce an immediacy and authenticity, but instead leaves almost nothing memorable on the table when it’s all said and done. If Merielles and his team had a more clear-eyed vision for some of these sequences, one imagines they would feel more immersed in the proceedings rather than the scattered hyperactivity on display.
“Confession clears the mind of the sinner. It doesn’t help the victim,” Bergoglio tells the Pope during one of their conversations, a truism meant to convince him that centuries of Catholic ceremony should be reconsidered in the light of the sex abuse scandals. At one point Bergoglio also speaks to bringing a sense of Jesus-centered humanity to the religion, “Communion is not an award for the virtuous, but food for the starving,” he says. On their own, these are thought-provoking ideas to be tossed around, but the film is more interested in conversation-starters than actually having the conversation and finding a way forward. It’s a compelling set-up to get a fabricated what-if into a world of such high power, and Meirelles does effectively center on the excess and ritualistic nature that being the leader of over a billion followers — and the money that brings in, the name of God — has led to. “The carnival is over,” says Bergoglio when he takes his place as Pope Francis and declines the regalia that goes with the announcement/revealing of him as the new Pope. It’s a moment indicating a remediation of the past and a future free of showboating. Then the credits feature an audience-coddling sequence meant to put a smile on the face of every viewer and, in return, stifle any feelings that there’s still immense issues to address and rehabilitate in the Catholic Church. It encapsulates just why The Two Popes is ultimately an exercise that feels entirely lacking in conviction. Though delivering the expert pairing of Hopkins and Pryce, The Two Popes decidedly surrounds the duo with a scattered, clumsy, over-directed mess that swerves the tough issues for crowd-pleasing jokes from popes.
The Two Popes will be released onto Netflix (in the U.S.) on December 20