Darkest Hour writer Anthony McCarten tries the same with The Two Popes. He delves into the private meetings between the last pontiff Pope Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis I in the months leading up to Pope Benedict’s shocking resignation and Francis' well-received succession in 2013. McCarten can’t possibly know the contents of these conversations, yet he doesn’t even pretend to be factual. He seems to delight in the not knowing: permitting a lot of entertaining guesswork.
The Two Popes begins with the voting process
Director Fernando Meirelles facilitates McCarten's fiction with a mutual excitement. At the start of the film, Benedict and Francis's first conversation together is during the vote for a new pope in 2005. The then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Francis) hums Dancing Queen and tells the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict) about it… in Latin. A montage of the pope-voting process then unfolds, over the unmistakable tune of Abba’s famous track.
Not shackled by what is and isn't known, McCarten and Meirelles free the film into an impressive, absorbing, dialogue-indulgent piece that elegantly flaunts the strengths of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. And these are two seasoned actors who can never be boring.
It’s no coincidence that the legendary casting director Nina Gold chose theatrical actors for the two popes. The film contains scenes of many theological discussions which – on paper – are closer to theatre than cinema. Hopkins uses his trademark Shakespearean rasp as the conservative Pope Benedict, and Pryce plays the more liberal, forward-thinking Cardinal Bergoglio with a jokey, all-embracing glow.
Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) enjoying a football match
Once they get to know each other, as Bergoglio tries to leave the church, they grow into a surprisingly comedic duo: the holiest double act of the century. Even atheists (like this critic) have to admit: watching these actors bicker, about matters great and small, is like a religious experience in itself.
These extended dialogues could easily have turned into a stale and drearily academic exercise, repressing a sexier style in favour of a more solemn dialectic. But in the hands of Fernando Meirelles, director of the furiously stylised City of God, there are some jolts of unprecedented energy in the script.
It’s too much at times, especially in one muted scene when Benedict plays the piano with Bergoglio watching, but it mostly succeeds with its spontaneous, docudrama style – ecstatically sewn together by editor/theologian Fernando Stutz. Meirelles’ visual innovations flourish further as he delves into Bergoglio’s troubled past in Argentina – squaring the picture into a 4:3 frame and washing it in black and white – before, during, and after the dictatorial Dirty War of the 70s and 80s.
The film explored the troubled past of Jorge Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) in dictatorial Argentina
There are a few dodgy moments with Benedict. The film only makes brief mentions regarding the former pope’s Nazi-affiliated past and his alleged covering up of child sex-abuse scandals within the church. McCarten even appears to exonerate Benedict towards the end with a final, muffled confession; it's a bit discomforting.
But the fiction is so indulgent that it’s hard to view these fabrications as accurate representations of the real popes. Better to watch The Two Popes as an intelligent, theological buddy comedy instead – an enjoyable piece of conjecture that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
|What||The Two Popes, Netflix review|
20 Dec 19 – 20 Dec 20, ON NETFLIX
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