If faith could fit, handily and completely, in human hands … well, it wouldn’t be faith at all, right?
Great films about faith — like 2018’s First Reformed or 2016’s Silence — achieve the same state of being. They dance in and out of the light they shine to catch slivers of reflection, briefly seen and gone forever. They equate that which is obscured and omnipresent. They believe that rattling ratified dogma is often the best way to fortify our strength.
Across its first hour or so, The Two Popes seems poised to reach similarly rarefied air. Adapted by screenwriter Anthony McCarten from his own play, the film speculates on the substance of meetings held in 2013 between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) — prior to Benedict’s resignation and Bergoglio’s historic ascent to the papacy as Francis, the first-ever Pope from the Americas. (The film opens in limited theatrical release on December 13 before it’s available to stream worldwide on December 20.)
Benedict is a German-born hardliner whose reign post-John Paul II put forth a return to more conservative values. Bergoglio is all about that base of Catholics eager to reform in evolving times. Director Fernando Meirelles trains his trademark urgency on their ideological prizefight about reconciling the roars of modern life with the ever-diminishing whispers of prayer. Even in quiet contemplation, there is ferocity. Even in fierce confrontation, there is grace. Even in tense moments, there are ABBA needle-drops.
It would be easy to wonder just what a filmmaker known for seminal gangland tales (City of God), rapturous geopolitical thrillers (The Constant Gardener) or plain-old blunt, bleak nihilism (Blindness) sees here. Early on, Meirelles’ camera weaves into the two combatants’ faces and corners, their fears and concerns — capturing their contentious conversations with the concussion of cluster-bombs that make you believe this is another huzzah for Hopkins and perhaps Pryce’s signature role (despite terrible overdubbing of someone who sounds 35 years younger on his Spanish dialogue).
Meirelles sees a way to probe purpose, passion and regret in power struggles between influential men. McCarten sees yet another anodyne approach to awards-friendly storytelling.
McCarten has become this decade’s baron of bland biopics like The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking), Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury) — each with Oscar-nominated screenplays, Oscar-winning actors and Oscar-baiting boredom. One shudders to think at whatever he’s conjuring for an untitled John Lennon project.
Just as The Two Popes’ protagonists are pitted against each other, so, too, are Meirelles and McCarten against the material. By the time the film abandons heavyweight haymakers at sacred mystery and common misery for bantamweight bobs of Benedict and Francis snapping selfies, scarfing pizza and sliding around in the tango … well, the judges don’t need to decide this one.
At least The Two Popes presents a more compelling story of papal intrigue and insight than Angels & Demons, given that its vérité prologue depicts a papal election after John Paul II’s 2005 death like an Aronofsky montage. Bergoglio is considered a dark-horse contender at that time, but falls short to Benedict.
Jumping ahead eight years, Bergoglio is about to hang it up when Benedict XVI — now enmeshed in molestation scandals and betrayals from his own inner circle — summons him. Benedict knows the optics of such a progressive Cardinal resigning now would be terrible. So Benedict proceeds to give Bergoglio one hell of an exit interview ahead of his proposed retirement — one in which he hopes Bergoglio will “have enough respect to show me true anger” … and maybe, just maybe, take the ultimate promotion.
The Two Popes isn’t entirely earnest; alongside the aforementioned ABBA, there are amusing production details to behold (try to spot the laptop under all the books) and such winningly absurd bits as the ridiculous police-procedural series with which Benedict likes to wind down his evenings.
It’s also not entirely a two-hander, interjecting flashbacks to Bergoglio’s personal life and fateful miscalculations amid Argentina’s political tumult. While these moments allow Meirelles to shift to yet more tones, they also flesh out Bergoglio’s misgivings about his potential qualifications for the papacy. However, McCarten’s script so moronically mis-appropriates these moments during the final reel — somehow equating Bergoglio’s ill-advised attempt at peaceful partnership with violent men to Benedict’s confessional complicity on what he knew of priests’ predatory molestation of children.
You wanted something more offensive than McCarten’s rewriting of Freddie Mercury’s sexual history? Well, rubber your neck at this stunning swerve into oncoming traffic of a social issue this film is laughably incapable of addressing. It’s also impossible to reconcile this feeling of Franciscan forgiveness McCarten’s script follows here. And by the time it lets fly a smooth-jazz cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” this is the ultimate path of least resistance for a story powered by push and pull.
The Two Popes has fleeting moments of excellence when it lets us see the ways in which Bergoglio and Benedict feel both great and small in the presence of something mightier — both the God they worship or the religion they help shape. The story of their clash and coming together could’ve been a wave crashing on the beach of Catholicism. Instead, it’s a tide that’s far too neap and distressingly cheap.