Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce go head to head as The Two Popes
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. In English, Spanish, and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated PG
The Two Popes is about much, much more than a pair of superannuated divinity students trying to bridge two seemingly different ways of looking at life. It focuses on the real-life tug of war between rival pontiffs, played out in history both recent and ancient.
The recent part centres on 2013 Rome, where we meet Joseph Ratzinger, the ultraconservative, German-born cardinal who became Pope Benedict, played here by Anthony Hopkins. He will ultimately yield his Vatican throne to Argentina’s reform-minded Jorge Bergoglio, as assayed by Jonathan Pryce. Both men bury their English mannerisms in favour of the alternately Teutonic and Latinate demands of their roles. Larger forces—fascism versus liberation, cynical worldliness against spirituality, et cetera—dominate a cinematic chess match envisioned by screenwriter Anthony McCarten, the New Zealander behind such pop-historical studies as the science-minded The Theory of Everything, the Churchillian Darkest Hour, and the Mercurial Bohemian Rhapsody.
Although Benedict, then 85, cited advanced age as cause for early retirement, the movie suggests that banking scandals and the ongoing child-abuse crisis were behind it. Furthermore, McCarten claims that the old-timer sees in the Jesuit Bergoglio (only nine years younger) a progressive way forward for the dwindling Catholic Church. When the latter is summoned from Buenos Aires to an unexpected papal audience, he discovers that his cranky superior has hidden depths, including a love of music that extends to the movie itself, which uses snippets of everything from ABBA and the Beatles to Mozart and Smetana to comment on theological dichotomies.
This is also a two-way confessional, although there’s very little of Ratzinger’s story, perhaps because his childhood in Nazi Germany is already so familiar, and because his particulars don’t lend themselves to a clear-cut narrative. (Conscripted into the Hitler Youth, the boy ignored his duties, and his father—a Munich policeman—was a vocal anti-Nazi.)
There’s far more time given to Bergoglio’s ambiguous sojourn through his nation’s cruel dictatorship, focusing on his inability, as a top Jesuit, to protect the more than 30,000 innocent people tortured and killed by the military. He himself was eventually exiled, and we get extended flashbacks, with Zama’s Juan Minujín as the young cleric, showing the brutal dissolution of normal life in a terror state.
This sometimes plodding concentration of detail is a reminder that the two-hour tale was directed, quite colourfully, by City of God’s Fernando Meirelles. He’s obviously mindful that his beloved Brazil is now led by a president who expresses eager nostalgia for the worst parts of South American history, and calls the current pope “a Communist meddler” for speaking out on behalf of the Amazon. In the end, the multilingual movie can be viewed as an advanced acting class, a truncated history lesson, or—most unusually—a call to locate what holiness remains afloat in this fetid ocean of sin.