A scene in the Vatican restroom from The Two Popes as a pair of Catholic cardinals wash their hands:
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: [in Latin] What’s the hymn you’re whistling?
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio: “Dancing Queen”
The brief comical moment is representative of the postures of the two cardinals—Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce)—who would go on to become the next two popes of the Roman Catholic Church. Where Pope Benedict XVI is a rigorous academic-minded theologian who strongly defended Catholic traditions and postures of reverence, Pope Francis’s concerns have been centered around social justice concerns, those practices of mercy which care for the poor and oppressed. This is a sweeping generalization, but where the former is known for defending orthodoxy (right belief and doctrines) the latter is more regarded for orthopraxy (right actions and virtues).
Such sweeping generalizations and symbolic representations are elemental to the overall approach to theology and biography in The Two Popes. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten plays fast and loose with historical details; the film is more an adaption of McCarten’s stage play, The Pope, rather than a true depiction of the relationship between these men. For example, the entire premise for their lengthy conversation is around Bergoglio’s apparent early retirement request in protest of Ratzinger’s conservatism. But Bergoglio was actually at retirement age, and the details of their interactions are fictionalized here. Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus gives an insider look at the historical misconceptions and McCarten’s “Wikipedia-like biography” in his critical review.
Despite these noteworthy reservations about historicity, I found myself mostly enthralled by the two lead performances from Hopkins and Pryce, especially the latter. Where Hopkins present Ratzinger with an poignant stubbornness, an unyielding devotion to God and the Church, Pryce’s performance is warmly endearing and imbued with humility—he’s relatable, the kind of Pope who likes to eat pizza and watch football (soccer). Yet there is a fervor for God and people in Pryce’s Bergoglio, as well as a sadness. Indeed, both men often appear spiritually and emotionally troubled, and it is this beautiful burden of vocational ministry which binds the two men together. When they confess their sins to one another, it comes across as sincere and sacred. Argentine actor and director Juan Minujín portrays a young Bergoglio in various flashback sequences of the priest’s early ministry in Argentina (notably, Ratzinger is not given such flashback treatment).
I was also impressed by the direction from Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles. His previous film City of God was a hyper-stylized frenzy (I initially loved the film, but it’s soured upon rewatch), and Blindness was grim and grimy, but The Two Popes has a restraint about it while nevertheless being filled with a sort of underlying fervor, both in the camerawork and the performances. Scenes of Rome are stunning, and the framing of the two men as they walk and talk is always interesting. The film’s overall tone is lighthearted without being irreverent, at once sacred and profane, honoring and critical. Whether you’ll appreciate McCarten’s airport bookstore-level writing or Meirelles’s ostentatious direction may all be a matter of taste and a commitment to historical accuracy. I still found myself converted by Hopkins and Pryce skillfully portraying this divine bromance.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8404614/