Buddy movies. Male or female, cops or cowboys, teenagers or OAPs, the essence of the formula is nearly always the same. Two unlikely companions forced together who learn to respect, sometimes even love, each other. So welcome the latest and perhaps most surprising double act of the lot. The Two Popes.
And, in this dramatization of events from 2013 – when Benedict XVI shocked the Roman Catholic world by becoming the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII in 1415 and a new Pope had to be elected – the two men at the centre of the story follow the established tradition. They’re chalk n cheese. The film opens, full of pomp and ceremony, with Benedict’s (Anthony Hopkins) election, something that one of the Cardinals observes “he wants too much.” A solitary, scholarly man, ill at ease among people and almost devoid of a sense of humour, he is regarded as ultra-conservative and the final months of his reign are tainted with scandal.
His polar opposite is Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), a man with the common touch, who loves football and eschews the elaborate trappings of high office for a simpler, less affluent lifestyle. He’s seen as a reformer, whose views are completely at odds with Benedict’s. They’re seemingly on a collision course – except that when Benedict resigns he knows exactly who he wants to take over from him, even though his choice is planning to retire and is, unsurprisingly, reluctant. It’s no spoiler to say, however, that he gets his way and is succeeded by Bergoglio, who takes the name of Francis.
In real life, the two couldn’t have had more different public images and, although the film attempts to strip those away to give more personal portraits of the men behind them, the result doesn’t deviate too much from what the world believes of them. But, like anybody, they have their secrets and surprises, the orthodox Benedict in particular who is objective enough to see the qualities of the man he wants to follow in his footsteps, even if he stands for everything he disagrees with. Their contrasting backgrounds, attitudes and characters set the stage for a two hander rejoicing in the talents of Hopkins and Pryce. And they’re the whole reason for sitting out over two hours. They’re both excellent, infusing their characters with humanity, humour and, ultimately, a mutual respect.
While they both deliver awards worthy performances, the film isn’t quite in the same league. Despite detailed re-creations of Vatican rituals, it has an inconsistency of tone that’s frustrating and occasionally irritating. Given the seriousness of some of the issues raised, the regular drift into unsophisticated comedy is a less than comfortable fit. Equally, in a confession scene where the audience has to imagine the dialogue, there’s the distinct sense that one of them is being given an easier ride than the other. It makes for a film that, like its two protagonists, has its failings. But the performances at its heart are flawless.
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Drama, History | Cert: 15 | Netflix | UK, 29 November 2019: Netflix, 20 December 2019 | Dir. Fernando Meirelles | Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin, Sidney Cole, Thomas D Williams.