By Leah Greenblatt
December 09, 2019 at 12:56 PM EST
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The narrative tension at the center of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles‘ holy drama, The Two Popes, is right there in the title: How can Popes be plural?

It’s 2005, and the death of John Paul II opens the door for a not-unexpected successor, the German Cardinal who becomes Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). But there are more than a few votes, too, for Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), a humble, ABBA-loving Argentinian with far less codified views.

Some seven years later, Benedict is ailing — and under the strain of an increasingly scandal-plagued Church — and so he summons his onetime rival to the Vatican, where the future Pope Francis is hoping to plea for early retirement; Benedict, of course, has other ideas.

As these vastly different men parry, spar, and circle one another, Meirelles’ intimately talky two-hander — not counting, depending on how you might choose to qualify these things, a third invisible hand upstairs — works with wit and quiet humor to demystify perhaps the most powerful and insular post in the world.

Peter Mountain/Netflix

Some will take issue, rightly, with how easily the script by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour) seems to glide over and then past the moral quandary so central to the modern Catholic Church: its supreme mishandling of endemic sexual-abuse issues, and the credible accusations that many in its upper ranks, up to and including the Vatican, effectively buried some of the most egregious cases.

Instead, Meirelles — best known for 2002’s riotous, transcendent City of God and 2005’s The Constant Gardener, which earned Rachel Weisz an Oscar — turns much of the film’s focus to Francis’ role in Argentina’s Dirty War, an era when he was widely accused by his fellow clergymen of failing to protect his homeland’s people from a brutal military junta. (It may be, too, that Meirelles, a self-confessed “very bad Catholic,” felt more comfortable dealing with Church issues that land much closer to home.)

That he has two such fine actors — by turns spiky and shrewd, opaquely divine and utterly ordinary — to play out a relatively scant storyline (the procuring of takeout pizzas qualifies as a peak dramatic moment) carries the film a long way. Together, Hopkins and Pryce lift Popes above its loose patchwork of monologue, flashback, and personal reckoning, and let the movie get down to its truest root: scaling the mystery that makes all men, even the most seemingly unknowable and sacrosanct, human. B+

(The Two Popes is in theaters now and comes to Netflix on Dec. 20.)

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