Among the virtues of “The Two Popes,” a sparkling confection with a serious side, is that, given its prosaic title, its crowd-pleasing attributes come as pretty much of a surprise.
Though its name suggests a somber ecclesiastical conversation between a pair of elderly clerics, what’s on offer is quite the opposite.
Written by Anthony McCarten, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, this sprightly film offers spirited conversations as well as a playful side. Who knew that serious talk about the future of the Catholic Church could be the source of so much fun?
“Inspired by true events,” “The Two Popes” in effect expands on reality, imagining a series of intense conversations over a few days in 2012 between Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man who was in many ways his philosophical opposite.
While the nature of the behind-closed-doors relationship these men may or may not have shared continues to be debated, one reality is clear: In 2013, Benedict became the first pope in more than 700 years to resign of his own volition, and a month later the Argentine cardinal became Pope Francis. “Two Popes” posits a connection between these events, and elaborates on what it might have been.
While the back and forth between these two men can resemble “Frost/Nixon,” the dynamic of “Two Popes” is surprisingly close to 1944’s “Going My Way” and its depiction of liberal Catholic priest Bing Crosby facing off against conservative cleric Barry Fitzgerald, a best-picture winner that also took home Oscars for both actors. Old Hollywood norms, God bless them, never really go away.
And, helped by their physical resemblance to the people they play, both Hopkins and Pryce (whose children apparently asked after Francis’ election, “Dad, are you the pope, secretly?”) make full use of their considerable skill to invigorate their performances and leave us hanging on their every word.
Just as critical but frankly a bit of a surprise is the expert way screenwriter McCarten and director Meirelles, whose sensibilities are not so close on paper, end up complementing each other.
Three-time Oscar nominee McCarten is a specialist in stories from real life, including “The Theory of Everything,” and, as his scripts for both “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” demonstrate, he sometimes ends up with scenarios that are tidier than is good for them.
Brazil’s Meirelles, whose films include the knockout “City of God” and the thoughtful “The Constant Gardener,” is by way of contrast a director known for rigor and adventure.
Working, as here, with regular cinematographer César Charlone, Meirelles also imbues his films with memorable imagery, and the first thing you notice about “Two Popes” is how visual a film it is, especially in its opening sections.
The film begins in 2005 in Villa 32, an impoverished area of Buenos Aires, and Charlone’s fluid camerawork swoops through the neighborhood as we hear Cardinal Bergoglio delivering a warm and well-received speech about his own humble beginnings.
Then the locale shifts to a very different arena, the ritualistic color and pageantry of 115 beautifully robed cardinals gathering in Vatican City to engage in a process newscasters call “deeply spiritual but very political,” the election of a new pope after the death of John Paul II.
As a few pointed snubs demonstrate, the early favorite, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins), a stalwart traditionalist, is no fan of his Argentine colleague, a beloved liberal who refuses to campaign against his rival.
After Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict, Cardinal Bergoglio returns to Buenos Aires where, after seven more years of service, he feels burned out and writes to the pope asking to resign. When he gets an invitation to come to Rome, he thinks his resignation is being accepted, but nothing that simple is in the works.
Where Meirelles and his screenwriter turn out to be in perfect agreement is in their admiration for Bergoglio, who demonstrates on the trip that he’s someone who does not stand on ceremony. Despite his lofty position, the cardinal is very much of a roll-my-own-suitcase, sit-up-front-with-the driver kind of guy.
Though he doesn’t expect it, Bergoglio is headed for several days of intense conversations with the pope, taking place first at the pontiff’s Castel Gandolfo summer residence and then at Vatican City, including time spent in the Sistine Chapel (physically re-created over 10 weeks at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, with a CGI ceiling added later).
The initial bristling conversation between the cardinal and the pope, who calls his visitor “one of my harshest critics, and there’s lots of competition for the title,” is “Two Popes” at its best.
While Bergoglio pleads “mercy is not reserved for the virtuous, it is food for the starving, dynamite that tears down walls,” Benedict snaps back: “You have an answer for everything. You are clever, far too clever. You make a joke of everything.”
But as they continue to hang out together, the two men start to enjoy each other’s company, even jointly watching the pope’s favorite TV show, the Austrian “Kommissar Rex” about a crime-solving dog.
More than that, they share confidences about their regrets, including the cardinal’s worry that he did not do enough during Argentina’s “dirty war” and the pope’s concern that he is unsure what God wants him to do.
What unites them finally is that they’re both zealous about narrowing the gap between the church and the world, and so the stage is set for the historic drama that is to come.
“The Two Popes,” with Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images. Opens Dec. 13 at multiple theaters and begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 20. The Los Angeles Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.