The Two Popes presents a convergence, wherein a man with a crisis of faith intersects with a crisis of the Faith itself. Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) must manage a Catholic Church wracked by scandal, all while dealing with spiritual insecurities of his own. When he receives Inspiritus, it arrives in an unlikely form: The progressive, activist Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who arrives in Rome to tender his resignation. Their conversations turn into Cathechical sparring, but each man soon finds that what divides them also has the potential to unite them.
Those may not sound like the spiciest ingredients for what amounts to a two-man character study, but The Two Popes excels on those terms anyway. Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) takes sweeping historical events and boils away everything we don’t need. What we’re left with is a story of two influential men who must find a way to contain their spiritual pride, and strike a balance between giving ground and giving up.
The story begins with the death of Pope John Paul II. Bergoglio is seen by many cardinals as an opportunity to modernize the Church and keep younger members from fleeing in droves. German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger–known in the Vatican as “God’s Rottweiler”–campaigns for a return to spiritual conservatism. Ratzinger’s persistence pays off: He ascends to become Benedict XVI, and Bergoglio returns to his humble apartment in Buenos Aires.
Flash-forward a few years, and we find Benedict drowning in Papal controversy. The Vatican Bank teems with corruption, while it’s also apparent the Church acted with negligent apathy toward scores of abusive Priests. By the time Bergoglio arrives in Rome, Benedict looks like a miserable man, defeated by the job he once coveted.
The initial meeting between the two priests bristles with tension: Both seem aware of their mutual dislike, and neither seems willing to budge about it. Benedict looks down at Bergoglio’s affection for secular interests, including football and the Beatles. Meanwhile, Bergoglio stands in disbelief that Benedict could cling to dated doctrines while younger generations put the Church in their rearview.
Slowly, the men thaw toward each other. After all, they both believe. They both care passionately. Eventually, this leads to the stunning revelation from Benedict that he intends to resign the Papacy. Ever humble, Bergoglio rejects that idea that a pope could step down, or that he could be the next in line. Through the ensuing argument, the two men must confront what drove them toward the Faith, and what has occasionally separated them from it.
This is an intelligent, fascinating story, tethered to two strong personalities. It doesn’t hurt that these personalities are inhabited by two of the most engaging actors around. Hopkins plays Benedict as a man walled-in by his own convictions, even though they house an engaging, talented spirit within. (“I’m German. Our jokes don’t have to be funny.”) For Pryce’s Bergoglio, humility and pragmatism are really a means to pay off an immense spiritual debt. Both men slip into each role so naturally that we just go with it: They are the two Popes. If both men aren’t nominated for Oscars, then it’s time for the Academy to fold up its tent and g’home.
Meirelles also does an exquisite job recreating the time and space of these events. Through painstaking set design and CGI, it feels like we’re in the Vatican corridors and papal conclaves. Combine that with Anthony McCarten’s script, and you get a movie that stays ceaselessly compelling. Two Popes sitting in a garden, ironing out their spiritual differences might not grab as the basis for one of the year’s best movies. Guess what? It is.
125 min. PG-13.