The Two Popes is an actors’ showcase with little to say
Two many popes in The Two Popes
If movies were sacraments, this would be a pretty weak confessional.
As if made by Catholic apologists for authorized Vatican propaganda, The Two Popes skirts a whole lot of issues as it imagines an ongoing conversation between Pontiff-turned-Emeritus Benedict XVI (a.k.a. Joseph Ratzenberger) and his successor Pope Francis (the former Argentinian Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) over the course of Benedict’s papacy.
Pitting the conservative Benedict against the progressive Francis (Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, respectively), director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, City of God) sets their doctrinal differences into an ideological tête-à-tête, with a strong bias towards the latter.
Indeed, Benedict is decidedly doctrinaire, a hardline traditionalist who seeks to course-correct from Pope John Paul II’s legacy of modernization. Francis is the opposite, keen to liberalize even further. Their opposing philosophies have defined each of them, but Meirelles—along with screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody)—reduce both nearly to caricature.
Benedict is strict, Francis gracious. Benedict is cold, Francis compassionate. Oppressive and liberating. Stodgy and open. Each is pitched in predictable but never provocative fashion. Adherents of Benedict will feel disdained, fans of Francis will never be challenged, as audiences are denied a vibrant exchange of ideas that test existing assumptions about both sides. This is especially true in the ways that Benedict (through his advocacy for the poor, refugees, and the environment) and Francis (upholding Church catechism on homosexuality, divorce, female ordination) defy their media-driven profiles.
Playing the title roles with compelling intimacy, Hopkins and Pryce infuse this Sistine two-hander with a sense of transparency that the material lacks. Meirelles postures it as a rigorous theological dialogue but then pulls punches all along the way. The Two Popes essentially makes a feature-length case for Francis so tilted in his favor that even Benedict himself eventually comes around.
Repressed regrets and dark nights of the soul are broached in the second hour, but even these attempts at humanizing the Holy Sees feel soft and calculated, and degrees of existential doubt by these Vicars of Christ come off as incredulous examples of secular transference.
Worst of all, there’s an elephant in the cathedral that’s completely ignored: the pervasive sexual abuse of children perpetrated by priests, and the systemic cover up by the whole episcopal structure. If this movie were your only reference, you’d never even know that this global decades-long scandal ever existed. It’s as if a Synod of Bishops had final cut.
It’s not that Meirelles should’ve used this occasion to grind axes either. That would’ve been equally didactic, just in another obnoxious direction. But this, as is, is such a softball. A complex study is what’s needed, brave yet considered; an examination of these two men and the most relevant issues facing the church they lead.
Instead what we’re left with is a missed opportunity—Oscar bait that plays it safe rather than with courage, repentant humility, or moral (even hopeful) resolve. The Two Popes is a nice-enough portrait, but it’s far from consequential.
The Two Popes opens exclusively at Circle Cinema on Dec. 13. It begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20.