A film review by Craig J. Koban January 15, 2020


2019, PG-13, 125 mins.


Jonathan Pryce as Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis  /  Anthony Hopkins as Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Directed by Fernando Meirelles  /  Written by Anthony McCarten


The new Netflix original film THE TWO POPES is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes creatively muddled, but superlatively acted chronicle on the relationship between John Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (who would eventually become Pope Francis after the former resigned).  The historical undercurrents at play here are endlessly compelling: Pope Francis was the first non-European Pope since the 8th Century (and the first ever from South America), whereas his direct predecessor in Benedict was the first Pope to resign since the 15th Century.  

Directed with confidence by Fernando Meirelles (who made two of the best films of the 2000s in CITY OF GOD and THE CONSTANT GARDENER), THE TWO POPES is a handsomely produced and frequently intoxicating portrait of the very recent history of division within the Catholic Church, but it's also regrettably too long, too scattershot in focus at times, and perhaps too soft pedaled in terms of tackling some of the more damning controversies and scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years.  These factors, I think, hold it back from achieving true greatness. 

The film opens in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II, which, in turn, led to his successor in the German Cardinal and future Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).  Even though Benedict was the odds on favorite, there still remained some loyal to passing their vote towards Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), whose views were a bit more open minded.  Flashforward seven years and we see the strain of Benedict's leadership, mostly stemming from the Church being ravaged by the Vatican leaks scandals and Benedict's role in potentially protecting pedophile priests the world over.  Realizing the far reaching and distracting scope of such polarizing times, Benedict rocked the Catholic world by being the first pope to resign since 1415, leaving the door open for a new replacement.  This brings us back to Cardinal Bergoglio, who has been seeking an early retirement, but Benedict has other plans for his former progressive minded rival, which leads to a verbal and spiritual battle of wills between the two men of God.  History, of course, has proven that Bergoglio did in fact succeed Benedict and became Pope Francis, but THE TWO POPES is all about the build up towards that occurring. 



Meirelles has always had a reputation for being an unqualified visual dynamo with his past films, and even though THE TWO POPES is a lot more stylistically retrained than, say, CITY OF GOD, it nevertheless boasts stunningly immersive production design and some thanklessly solid (and invisible) visual effects.  Early on in the story the filmmaker does a bravura job of recreating the 2005 papal conclave that followed Pope John Paul II's demise and the countless numbers of people that gathered in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican to pay their proper respects.  It's magnificent to behold, which is arguably one-upped with the technologically awe inspiring re-creation of various famous interiors, such as the Sistine Chapel, which, rather astoundingly, is the product of a massive set build that reconstructed the famous structure in meticulous detail via a studio in Rome (shooting at the actual chapel would have been logistically impossible).  Whenever else possible, computer generated fakery was employed to place the actors in exteriors or interiors that could not be granted access to for Meirelles and his crew.  It's a pretty miraculously achievement, and there's rarely in a moment in THE TWO POPES where its environments feel counterfeit; there's a level of you-are-there intimacy with this film that's hard to criticize. 

Of course, the real reason to watch THE TWO POPES is to witness two titanic industry veterans like Hopkins and Pryce go toe-to-toe, and the pair never once disappoint.  Even when the frequently ill focused scripting (more on that in a bit) sometimes brings the film down, Hopkins and Pryce are always there to pick up the fractured pieces and elevate the film well above its deficiencies. The most important takeaway with watching them in the film is that both performers ground their respective characters in relatably flawed humanistic flourishes, despite their larger than life stature in the religious world.  The thought of a two hour film about two heavy hitters in the Catholic Church with contrasting ideologies bickering in multiple languages may not be everyone's idea of a compelling watch, but both actors sell the imperfections and anxieties that plagued these men rather well, which allows for a more easy portal into their very private lives. 

Of the two, I would argue that Pryce is the real standout, and I've always found him to be a commendably restrained actor that employs a great amount of performance economy to sell individual scenes.  He does a stellar job here of encapsulating Bergoglio as a passionately principled man of resolve and conviction that has had his share of mistakes in his darker past still continue to haunt him.  This takes THE TWO POPES down some interesting, but problematic narrative segues as Bergoglio recounts his role in Argentina's Dirty War, during which time he and his fellow clergyman were being put under a microscope for failing to protect his nation's citizen's from a brutal military incursion.  One of the more overwhelming burdens that Bergoglio faces - even up until the point when he became Pope - was his inaction during this dreadful time for Argentina in the 1970s.  In many respects, I found these flashbacks to be more intrinsically involving than anything in the present, mostly because it fleshes out the future Pope Francis as a man that has carried great burdens with him all of his life. 

THE TWO POPES tries to do this as well with Benedict, albeit with far less focus and time, as the script whisks us back to his thorny time with the Hitler Youth during his seminary years (that two could have made for an entire enthralling drama altogether), but these asides are only crudely dealt with and with very little embellishment.  There's a case to be made that Meirelles perhaps too haphazardly jumps between the present and past without much of a planned out roadmap, which negatively has a whiplash effect on viewers.  Plus, THE TWO POPES seems awfully reticent to really probe the depths of the sex abuse scandals that toxically tainted the Catholic Church during both pope's time in power.  There's something genuinely unsavory (and ironic) about how this film manages to sweep most of commentary about the mishandling of the sexual predators by the Church under the rug.  It's referenced here and there in some dialogue exchanges between Bergoglio and Benedict, but beyond that it's kind of treated like an afterthought.  It's almost as if Meirelles wasn't too interested in rocking the boat, so to speak, which leaves THE TWO POPES feeling a bit too safe and pedestrian for its own good. 

Some other creative choices here feel...well...weird, like the more austere usages of black and white cinematography to show Bergoglio's past in Argentina, which is fitting, but then the film awkwardly shifts to moments of pure comic absurdity in the present, like when ABBA's "Dancing Queen" blares on the soundtrack (Pope Francis is apparently a fan).  There's other strangely comical scenes, as evident when the Pope and Pope-to-be order in pizza and share a few drinks while watching a soccer match featuring their respective country's teams.  There were time when I frankly wasn't all too sure whether THE TWO POPES was supposed to being an odd couple comedy or a solemn minded conversation piece on the leaders of modern faith or a historical drama about the sins of past indiscretions rearing their ugly heads in the present...or a combination of all three.  These Netflix films are challenging the critic in me, because one of my usual self-imposed tests for arriving at a recommendation is whether or not a film is worthy a theatrical ticket price.  On that level, I wouldn't give THE TWO POPES an enthusiastic passing grade and would advise towards waiting for home consumption.  Yet, since this is streaming for free on Netflix now, I think that leaves me with giving Meirelles' film a level headed and fair three stars.  THE TWO POPES is superbly produced and inspired in its bravura lead performances, but it's a flawed and sometimes misguided drama that I wouldn't necessarily leave home to seek out.

  H O M E