The Two Popes draws a distinction between the reign of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Relative to Benedict, the movie positions Francis as benevolent, modern, and liberal. Under even the lightest of scrutiny, this intellectual dishonesty crumbles like the Eucharist in sacramental wine. As an artistic endeavor, The Two Popes doesn’t fare any better.
In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger, a German Cardinal, is elected to the Papacy to succeed Pope John Paul II. Years later, the same Pope, Benedict XVI, is anguished by a scandal involving his personal assistant as well as the ongoing sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic order. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later known as Pope Francis, is similarly disillusioned by the church’s rightward lurch under Benedict XVI.
Bergoglio attempts to submit his resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, but the Vatican does not respond. Benedict instead invites Bergoglio to Rome. The pair meet inside the palatial Vatican to discuss Bergoglio’s history, their differences, and the future of the church.
In the years since his election to the position, Pope Francis has spoken in favor of birth control, argued that divorced and remarried people can receive Communion, accepted the spectrum of human sexuality, and claimed that humans are responsible for mitigating climate change. These positions run counter to traditional church doctrine, but isn’t preaching contemporary beliefs a moral responsibility of religious institutions?
The black and white depiction of the two papacies is antithetical to reality. Although Francis has supported modern sensibilities, Cardinals have pushed back on his statements about divorce and gay marriage. Francis has done little more than his predecessor concerning the rampant child sex abuse. He calls on the world to face the refugee crisis, but the church does not dig into its own coffers to provide aid. Actions, in this case, speak louder than words.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and, notably, Bohemian Rhapsody) bolsters his reputation as a world-class scribe of reductive biopics. The film, adapted from McCarten’s 2017 play, The Pope, is based on a sequence of imagined meetings between the two giants of Catholicism. Biographical movies revolve around falsehood like the earth around the sun, but simplifying the subjects to the soccer-loving, foodie priest and the obsolete, dance-averse pope is exceedingly simple.
With a third act consisting of pure exposition, The Two Popes is the only movie of Netflix’s three serious entrants into the Academy Award race for Best Picture (The Irishman, Marriage Story) that did not receive a nomination. Director Fernando Meirelles, known for co-directing City of God, is capable of far more than this. Last year’s Green Book, in which Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen effortlessly solve racism by forging a friendship, is a spiritual predecessor to The Two Popes. Noting the uncanny similarities between The Two Popes and Green Book, the fact that the Academy will not award this with Best Picture is… gratifying. Entrenched religious leaders must find common ground in spite of political disagreement. Forget about Jim Crow and monumental policy ramifications, can’t we all just get along?
The Two Popes flips between English, Latin, German, Portuguese, and Spanish over the course of its two hours and five minutes. Pryce buoys the film with his performance as Good Priest, even adopting Francis’s Argentinian accent. Regrettably then, Hopkins’s lack of a German accent becomes all the more jarring. The production designers responsible for recreating the Vatican—and the Sistine Chapel in particular—offer something to divert attention away from the elementary politics.
In The Two Popes, the papacy is described as suffering and martyrdom. Meanwhile, the Popes (yes, both of them) live in a walled, guarded palace, make their own schedule, employ a personal chef, and travel via private helicopter. Perhaps Francis should be celebrated for updating an age-old text. It’s all relative.