Pope Benedict XVI is one of only two popes to resign from his position (not complete his term while still alive) in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. This happened in early 2013. His successor, Pope Francis, then shook-up the church and its billion+ followers with his modern approach to the papacy.
This unique situation is the basis for the Netflix drama, “The Two Popes”. The film begins with the election of German Cardinal Ratzinger as pope in 2005 (following the death of Pope John Paul II). In 2012, Cardinal Bergoglio travels from his native Argentina to Rome to ask the Pope to accept his retirement. During this confrontational visit these two very different men discuss serious matters pertaining to the church, and their roles in it. But they also get to know each other as people, talking about such various topics as music, sports and pizza.
Anthony Hopkins plays Ratzinger. Jonathan Pryce is Bergoglio. Each of them commands his role. Early scenes of awkwardness and tension between the two (who don’t agree on much, politically) are compelling. But these give way to moments of camaraderie, acceptance and… well… still a level of awkwardness. Through deep conversations, and painful reflections on the past, Ratzinger and Bergoglio (who weren’t universally loved in their respective communities) develop an understanding and, maybe, even a friendship.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) adapted this script from his own 2017 play, The Pope. “The Two Popes” definitely has a “stagey” feel, though the elaborate Rome and Argentina locales provide grandeur.
The greatest sin McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”) commit is devoting too much time on Bergoglio’s controversial backstory. This section, about halfway through the film, is grim and, I must confess, not nearly as interesting as scenes of the two living popes simply sparring with each other.
Meirelles mixes-in real-life news footage. And Hopkins and Pryce do get to share some light lines of dialogue now and then. But otherwise, the tone is appropriately serious. And both actors are up to the challenge.
Heaven knows, you don’t have to be Catholic or know anything about world religion to enjoy and admire “The Two Popes”. You have my blessing. See it.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Two Popes” gets a B.
Running Time: 125 min.