Cleaning up 2019 on an awards season roll, Netflix and Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes is a multilingual masterpiece loaded with content for both faithful and secular viewers to bask in and enjoy. Though it doesn’t quite tackle some of the Church’s touchier concerns, its personal, intimate story is one of the best, deepest character journeys of the year.
Adapted to the screen from real events and his own play, The Pope, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay opens in 2005 as Pope John Paul II’s death prompts the assembly of the Catholic Church’s leaders to elect a new head. After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) narrowly wins the vote and ascends to the name of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) flies to Rome seven years later to personally give him his papers of resignation as an Archbishop. To his dismay, Benedict refuses, and as Bergoglio stays to continue convincing him, the two very different men of the faith bond over their opposite and overlapping secular values.
The Two Popes is theologically riveting as Benedict and Bergoglio tussle over their polarized paths and plans for the Church. Beautifully colored across seamlessly transitioning swaths of English, Spanish, Italian, and Latin dialogue, McCarten’s powerful screenplay delves into the captivating challenges of the two figures’ opposing religious and wordly ideologies with an impartial, well-informed hand. Benedict’s more conservative set of beliefs are somewhat laid in the mud at the opening, but as the narrative progresses and the two men open up to each other’s perspectives, the film equally burgeons its audience’s understanding of their points of view. Themes about compromise and the need for change, forgiveness, and self-growth are meaningfully woven into every bit of fabric of the film, and while appealing largely to a Catholic crowd, its inherently human story has something to be grasped for those outside of the faith as well.
As strong as a lot of this back-and-forth is, the ideas circulating throughout the film don’t unfortunately get around to addressing the Church’s streak of soiled decision-making, particularly those regarding evil priests’ abuse of children. The film does make note of them to a degree, just not enough to pin in a statement with purpose.
But as its title suggests, The Two Popes is entirely more a personal piece than it is one concerned with the Church’s political infrastructure. Jonathan Pryce and his uncanny doppelganger Juan Minujín give two of the best performances of the year as Bergoglio in the present and flashback, harmoniously crafting a hopeful, yet conflicted duality to the man with deeply moving grace. Anthony Hopkins is also excellent as Benedict, matching Pryce’s charming levity with an evolving curmudgeonly attitude that shines as his layers are slowly peeled back.
How much of the twin popes’ story is actually true is hard to say—a plethora of online articles have already shot down most of the film’s factual merit—and you can take or leave the documentarian vérité style, which can be intrusive with its cuts, zooms, and handheld cinematography. But Fernando Meirelles’ directing lends the film a more importantly equalizing emotional credibility, gorgeously capturing the beauty and the darkness of life with an impeccable ease and appreciation to touch the soul deeply.