I was never religious.
I never understood it. I found beauty in many of the ideas behind the multitude of beliefs around the world, and the grand mythology crafted in service of them. But I never could reconcile with the tradition, nor the demanded servitude. Instead I’ve always been fascinated by the people that have given themselves over to religion. Be it youth workers, missionaries, counselors, priests, or popes. Anyone who dedicates their life to a cause so thoroughly that it becomes a defining factor of who they are.
THE TWO POPES claims to be inspired by real events, but it may as well be fiction. It follows the behind the scenes process of a near unheard of event: The unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and the ascension of the first South American Pope, Francis. The two men are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, respectively. The background is occupied almost entirely by the Vatican leaks scandal, which exposed corruption within the church, including the harboring of rampant child abuse worldwide. Almost none of that is explored.
Instead we’re painted a portrait of two inherently good men, one now lost in his twilight years, the other having found his place after years of wandering. It is only with one another, the film suggests, they’re able to find their better natures, and it is thanks to God that they were destined to meet in this time and place. How much of that you’re willing to accept is entirely up to how much stock you put in these things. Personally, I found the idea distasteful that any sort of joy should be found in a destined meeting of two powerful men helping one another overcome personal demons if it means the price for that is the suffering of millions of children worldwide. But the film isn’t interested in exploring anything that complicated, and it would be unfair to judge it on what it isn’t as opposed to what it is.
Taken as purely an exercise in a fictional portrait of two powerful figureheads of the church, THE TWO POPES is a reasonably entertaining experience. It is thoroughly well acted, with both Hopkins and Pryce delivering some of the best work in their career. Pryce in particular handles a part that could have come off as condescending with warmth and genuine pathos, juggling quiet humor and terror of what is to come with ease. Hopkins hides much of his typical boisterous nature under doddering grumpiness, but it’s especially in the last half of the film that his mischievous side comes into play with the kind of wit and precision we’ve come to expect over the decades.
There’s an argument that could be made that the film intentionally paints Benedict in a less than flattering light in order to pass off the newly instated Francis as a hero of the Catholic church, and it wouldn’t feel far off the mark. Benedict is consistently filmed from odd angles, often cut off from others by frames, fixtures or effigies, while Francis by and large is always seen with another person in close proximity. There’s a sense that the entire story is built around the chance to offer the fictional Benedict a public confession of his sins, as the rightful son of God takes over guidance of their people.
If that sounds political, that’s because it is. The film even acknowledges the inherent politics and circus acts to keep interest in the church, but it lacks any conviction to follow through with any criticism. There is, in particular, a scene where it tries to have things both ways by tackling the child abuse running rampant in the church head on, and at the last minute fading away the dialog entirely as not to anger anyone with the raised objection that maybe sexually abusing children isn’t an acceptable course of action for anyone. No matter how viewed, most of the problems in the film all circle back to this one point: It doesn’t know what it wants to be.
It really isn’t a character study, as neither man is allowed much in terms of growth. Most of the film takes place over two afternoons, as the men argue first in a garden, then slowly grow fonder of one another in their shared loneliness. We’re meant to understand that the inherent beauty in Francis is what has allowed for even the most wayward sheep to return to the flock, but at the same time the film acknowledges that the confession is there only to help the sinner, not those that have been sinned against.
It’s not a history lesson either, despite numerous forays into the past of Francis and his part, unwitting or not, in the atrocities committed in Argentina during the decade long Dirty War. When it comes to the discussion of sainthood, and acting in accordance with your beliefs and morals in the face of systemic evil, there is a far more interesting story to be found in his youth. Sadly the film only utilizes this period of history as a mere backdrop, with the human suffering meant to make us understand even further just how martyr-like Francis really is, carrying the heavy burden of surviving while so many others did not. It’s not a statement, nor is it an exploration of the issue. It’s just there, as with many other things in this film.
So what remains? For all the things that the film is not, what can be said that it is? It’s a sparring ground for two veteran actors, both at the peak of their craft, who have come to play their hearts out with meaty roles where the focus is entirely on them. As such, it’s perfection. There’s never a dull moment in exploring the geography of their faces and admiring the way both Hopkins and Pryce use body language to communicate more than their dialog will allow. Even as the erratic directing from the usually reliable Fernando Meirelles tries to bury the acting under showy, hyperactive camera work, both leading men stand out like lighthouses in a storm.
It’s just a shame that out of material so vast and tied to the history of the world we get a film this shallow and constricted in scope. In the end, we learn very little of these complicated figureheads of a church that rivals most multinational corporations.
They still remain distant icons, as mysterious and elusive as the historic statues and paintings populating Vatican City.