The Two Popes

Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody, has returned this year to pen the Netflix biographical drama, The Two Popes, and reteams with his most faithful collaborator, the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page about his subject. Like McCarten’s other films, The Two Popes is generally entertaining even if it offers no new insights, but some scenes are so cloying that they threaten to sink the entire film. Thankfully, it aligns more closely with Darkest Hour’s reductive but well-intentioned pandering than the insultingly simplified, and often blatantly incorrect Bohemian Rhapsody. While not the type of film that I particularly enjoy, it will no doubt find an audience as it is the type of feel good crowd pleaser that gives the semblance of tackling big ideas as it only briefly addresses that they exist, while skirting around any implications these ideas may have.

The Two Popes marks a return to feature length narrative filmmaking for Fernando Meirelles after an eight year hiatus. The director of City of God and The Constant Gardener turns away from the suspense and urgency found in his other films in an attempt to make something more quiet and meditative but, unfortunately, finds a finished product that is less thoughtful and insightful than any of his previous work. In fact, though not devoid of his directorial touch, it feels much closer to McCarten’s previous works than Meirelles’s.

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The Two Popes has ambitions of wrestling with the old and the new as it analyses the changing face of Catholicism in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign as Pope. However, in its presentation, it finds itself being little more than a propaganda piece in favor of Pope Francis. Every fault of his that is presented is depicted as actually being what makes him worthy of the papacy, as the various controversies he has been associated with are either called the result of his deep faith and caring too much or are entirely omitted. The biggest mistakes Pope Benedict XVI made are likewise not mentioned, while instead he is often simply called a conservative leader without exploration of what that meant, in an attempt to present him as a flawed but rightly guided Pope whose decision to step down to let Pope Francis take charge was entirely due to his belief in the righteousness of Pope Francis.

McCarten introduced the showing of the film by emphatically describing it as a call for finding the middle ground and searching for a conciliation between ideas of the past and the future but the film he wrote says the only way that happens is by the old recognizing the error of their ways and ceding fully to the new. Maybe that is the best way to progress, but it isn’t exactly the middle ground McCarten seemed convinced it was. He does take the occasional throwaway line to mention the importance of honoring long-standing traditions while moving into the future but these ideas never have any real impact on the film. Still, the film does offer quite a few laughs and its presentation of the ideas it does feel worthy of tackling is engaging and does present a compelling vision of two men’s very distinct visions of what the Catholic church can do to succeed.

Despite the script’s better moments, the film’s true saving graces are the performances of Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as the titular two popes. Hopkins does an excellent job of capturing the stubborn determination of a Pope who saw the error of his ways, but Pryce is the standout. Perhaps never better than here, Pryce paints an empathetic portrait of a man even while the film tries to paint him as more of a saint. Though the film relies on his impassioned speeches about his worldview, it is his moments of silence as he listens to Hopkins and his subdued reactions to what he says that truly demonstrate how skilled a performer Pryce is. The Two Popes works best as a star vehicle and, considering McCarten’s track record of carrying stars to Oscars, perhaps that was always its intent.

C+

C+ Middleburg Review

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