M, 126 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It’s an irresistible pleasure watching veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce together on screen as Pope Benedict and his successor, the head of the Catholic Church today, Pope Francis.
Each Welshmen has a commanding presence, and despite a lingering hint of some character or other they once played who was mad, or bad or downright dangerous to know, they are each thoroughly believable as good men of god. Everyone is saying that Pryce is a dead ringer for Pope Francis, and he is.
In the hands of another director, this drama about the struggle between Benedict and Francis, between the conservative and the liberal forces they represented in the church, could have been dull and unenticing. In the hands of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, it is anything but.
Two well-known films by Meirelles convey his range. He made that stunning, kinetic, crime drama, City of God, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as well as The Constant Gardener, a contemplative study of a man who avoids involvement with the world by immersing himself in his plants.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has had his fair share of success recently with Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, has done lively and engaging work here. It is not known what Benedict and Francis actually said to each other during the three conversations they had in 2013, but McCarten has some engaging views on it.
Music direction is lively too. In an early scene set in 2005, when the Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) bumps into Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) in the washroom, he is humming a pop tune. The same tune, ABBA’s Dancing Queen, is the soundtrack when cardinals from around the world assemble to elect their next pope.
irresistible performances though acknowledgement of issues of child abuse far too brief
Playful brio in this Meirelles film, from the variety of camera angles and positions to the soundtrack, is everywhere.
Back in 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the church was looking at its options in challenging times. Would it continue with the process of liberalisation that the late pope had overseen, or revert to a more stringent traditionalist approach?
It chose to install the conservative bishop from Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, as its new leader and re-affirm the church’s fundamental doctrine. Benedict XVI brought more Latin back in again, and the traditional red papal shoes re-appeared on his feet!
The Church’s new conservatism under Benedict caused the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio to fly to Rome to offer his resignation. The popular, liberal cardinal hadn’t even reached retirement age.
What Bergoglio didn’t know was that his pope, who was more advanced in age than most popes had ever been to hold office, was planning to step down. He wanted to persuade Bergoglio, his strongest critic, to succeed him.
Benedict had a plan, but his house guest at the papal summer residence had yet to become a willing participant.
Benedict was taking the all but unprecedented decision in 2013 to resign the papacy, stepping down before his maker claimed him. A pope or two had stepped down before, but the last one to resign on his own initiative did so back to the 13th century.
As to be expected, the worldly archbishop from Argentina and the former academic from Bavaria are worlds apart. Benedict reveals another side as the musician who enjoys playing his favourites on piano, including Berlin cabaret music. Bergoglio’s loves soccer, and as a dancer of tango he must of course practice. How else but with a partner?
The film delves into Bergoglio’s past when as a young man just about to marry he makes a U-turn into the confessional box and joins the Jesuits. Another B+W flashback shows his shameful actions under the Argentinian junta.
Yet, despite some conversation about child abuse in the church between Benedict and his cardinal, this moment is far too brief. You only have to be reminded of the Australian royal commission held into institutional responses to the abuse, or the devastating 2012 doco, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. A missed opportunity.
The Two Popes is still a rich and entertaining experience. A terrific extended conversation despite wasted opportunities, bringing an engaging, humanistic perspective to the issues the church faces in the modern world.
First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019