The Two Popes Applies Geniality to a Battle of Divine Wills and Egos

Image by Peter Mountain for Netflix

The saying “meeting of the minds” fits the retrospective premise of The Two Popes until you dig a little deeper into the expression. Taken from the Latin phrase “consensus ad idem” and used in the arena of contract law, the term stresses the existence of common understanding. For most of this film brilliantly scripted by three-time Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten, unity is not present between Anthony Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Their dichotomy is telegraphed right down to the wardrobe with the Cardinal in black and Pope’s pristine white.

They may “play for the same team,” if you will, yet there is a rhetorical battle of divine wills and egos. Sizing each other up, there is zero agreement between the two, who could not be farther apart philosophically, politically, or personally. But, to see the respect, oh my, the respect, being shared is like a balm of hopeful covenant all its own. Powered by two impeccable performances, there is truly something marvelous to see these powerful men reach a true “meeting of the minds.” The Two Popes is available now streaming on Netflix after a brief theatrical run.

Seven years after Pope Benedict XVI filled the Vatican power vacuum after the death of the revered John Paul II, the leader is bracing after leaked documents and the staining shame of the boiled-over sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church earlier this decade. Benedict calls upon the Argentine Bergoglio to cross the globe to meet him at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo summer residence for extended conversations. Bergoglio has requested in writing to leave his post as Archbishop and Benedict will not grant it. As it turns out, stress and age have reduced Benedict’s leadership capabilities, so much so that he too is considering the preternatural measure of resignation.

The greatest leaders think of others before themselves, making this trait the first common ground between then, fleshed out by the line “the best qualification of being a leader is not wanting to be a leader.” Benedict states that being a pope is being a martyr with its death sentence lifetime term. Harsh as that may be, such commitment is true. Yet, here are two men looking at different crossroads from different journeys that would have them leave their positions.

Cardinal Bergoglio waits for a driver to travel to a meeting.
Photo by Peter Mountain for Netflix

As they convene, their prickly differences clash both subtly and resoundingly. With a surprisingly smooth Spanish accent, Pryce plays Bergoglio as a jovial, amiable man coming from a place where tango and soccer are compulsory requirements and activities. He is a man of the people capable of whistling an ABBA tune while still being forthright in his fight against poverty and atrocity that has beset his nation at different points of his history.

Pope Benedict XVI watches a television news report with great interest
Image by Peter Mountain for Netflix

Filled with ticks and fiery reprisal if necessary, Hopkins imbues Benedict with a judgmental indignation and inflexibility. He sees Bergoglio as a salesman, one errant with protest, cynicism, and harsh criticism of traditions. As they introduce each other to their backgrounds, The Two Popes becomes a biopic of asides and flashbacks that document the tumultuous plight of a younger Bergoglio, played excellently by Argentine actor Juan Minujín, that slowly erase Benedict’s wrong impressions and define the prudent and unpretentious man who would become the Pope Francis that dazzles us to this day.

A young Jorge Mario Bergoglio stands before his congregation.
Image by Peter Mountain for Netflix

The burden of leadership is on high display throughout the historical notes of The Two Popes. Between the two men, there are different responses to crippling doubt and guilt. How they lead becomes the example. In Bergoglio, you have even-keeled humility to work around obstacles. In Benedict, you have a stalwart creed to maintain an institution at all costs. Condoning mercy, spiritual pride, and the penance of sins are compromises that must urgently lead to change across this personal valley on contention.

The recreated pomp and circumstance of the preparatory and gathering rituals in The Two Popes is given extraordinary energy. The invasive camera views, pans, and moves of cinematographer César Charlone (American Made) with angles to pull different points of view pairs with the breathless editing of up-and-comer Fernando Stutz to make the boring riveting in a very fluid film. Something like the tedious election of the conclave to select a new pope becomes a staccato milieu of amplified pen clicks, creased paper, dropped bingo balls, and clanging furnace doors. Built as a play hopscotching through decades, McCarten’s narrative builds big decision suspense nearly on par with a sports movie’s swell to get a victory.

City of God and The Constant Gardener director Fernando Meirelles does not shy away from the enormous balancing act here. The clear politics surrounding these men and their level of importance is softened by the intentional frankness to make these figures more reachable and human than merely humane from their lofty perches. The movie’s matter-of-fact tone balances the overarching seriousness of the history that was once at stake.

All the talk exceeds any and all production value. The confrontations of Hopkins and Pryce create immeasurable endearment to be found in this movie. Both actors are given the best showcase material they’ve had in years since chasing franchise robots or pirates, respectively. The way geniality shifts introspection to win over strife is fascinating and inspiring, to say the least. In one moment, the characters will debate a high theological construct and, in the next, remark on cheesy television or life’s simple pleasures over Fanta and pizza. Pryce and Hopkins sell that levity with ease and regality.

In closing, the resonating force of this movie will be its call for reflection alongside that which is being depicted. The men speak of a “spiritual hearing aid” or the need to “blow the ash away” as the strength of the Catholic Church is challenged by changing people and changing times. Wounds have been afflicted that need healing. These men lament how the “hardest thing is to listen to God’s voice.” It is a voice that should bring peace and not guilt. The movie says it plainly in “Truth without love is unbearable,” supporting the first two lessons. This high papal position is meant to continue and complete the work of God’s love. It looks like the right man for the job is in place where even a fictional episode like this can help us now see why.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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