‘The Two Popes’ Is A Surprisingly Affecting Buddy Comedy About Men In Bejeweled Capes

In The Two Popes — it’s hard not to wish the title was just “Two Popes,” a la 2 Guns — director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) uses walls as a recurring visual motif. This is a story about a clash of papal personalities — Jorge Bergoglio, aka Good Pope, the future Pope Francis, who believes the Catholic Church has erred in shutting out the outside world; and Joseph Ratzinger, aka Bad Pope, the conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who believes the church’s error is in allowing too much of the outside world to seep in and sully its sanctity.

It’s not a riddle which papal point of view Meirelles prefers. But this isn’t the kind of movie where we’re supposed to wonder which character is right, it’s more like the Spin Doctors song “Two Princes” if the princes were Popes (Pope Francis knows what a pope and lover ought to be). Meirelles could be accused of holding our hand a bit, but this isn’t a film about incendiary ideas, it’s a film about the Catholic Church. It’s a film that consists largely of two men in jeweled capes walking around immaculate gardens literally holding hands. It’s sneakily affecting, in the same way a church service can be. When religion is good, it helps followers find comfort in old traditions, and see the power in fairly obvious truths — about love, egalitarianism, not being an asshole, etc. They’re not new ideas, but Two Popes makes the case that they are timely ones.

Anthony Hopkins plays the rigid Ratzinger, a squinty German who knows he lacks the human touch, and promotes a church that would be protected from the winds of popular opinion — opposing communion for gays and the divorced and so forth, and generally partying like it’s 1499. Yet Ratzinger isn’t unsympathetic, and his acute awareness of his own unpopularity humanizes him. “Whenever I try to be myself people don’t like me very much,” Joey Ratz morosely tells his Argentinian colleague Bergoglio.

Jonathan Pryce plays Bergoglio, Ratzinger’s foil in seemingly every way, the Earthy Latin American who dances the tango and loves flavorful food, who even argues against the silliness of celibacy — which he points out was only adopted in the middle ages, though he doesn’t go so far as to act on this heresy (it’s true Two Popes could stand to have a lot more sex). Ratzinger sees the Church as a bulwark against the problems of society, sequestering himself in his Summer seat in the Castel Gandolfo and covering himself in the gaudy gewgaws of ecclesiastical splendor. Bergoglio eschews the fancy red shoes and campaigns for an open-door church, that’s actually of the people it serves. He’s not saying anything groundbreaking here, but damn if the little dude isn’t charming.

It’s easy to bag on Catholicism, and usually accurate. I grew up in a house with a father who liked to tell people that he was Catholic “until I reached the age of reason.”

But Meirelles makes a case for a Catholic church that at least could be a force for good in a film that’s explicitly about walls and wealth inequality. At the very least the Vatican makes for a useful metaphor here. Much of the film’s conflict comes from flashbacks, in which Bergoglio wasn’t yet the gentle tango enthusiast. He was just a bishop, trying to hold a flock together in a country under the thumb of a brutal military junta, when simply offering communion to the wrong people could be a capital offense, hoping to save lives even if it meant making nice with murderers

There isn’t much ambiguity in Anthony McCarten’s script (Darkest Hour, Theory of Everything) but there’s power in Meirelles’ direction. Shots like the one from inside a military aircraft at cruising altitude, where government soldiers are tossing drugged up “subversives” out the back into the ocean far below like bales of garbage, are impossible to forget. Ah, but Bergoglio has learned some Very Important Lessons from his time as a fascist apologist! Present-day Bergoglio has become the voice of reason on hot button issues like what to do with predatory priests, with a particular ax to grind against the entire banking industry.

I’ll leave it to the papal scholars to decide how accurate Two Popes truly is. It does have the air of a Pope Francis puff piece (a Pope Fiction, you could say), but it’s a very well done one. Anthony Hopkins, who excels at playing repressed men, is superb as ever playing Pope Benedict, a man who may not understand the world outside the church, but who gradually does come to understand the value of admitting that he doesn’t know everything.

Mostly it’s just a joy to watch these two actors face off in front of grand tapestries and stunning frescos. Two Popes has a gentle but winning sense of humor, and the two make an adorable couple, playing the piano for each other and holding hands as they tiptoe through the vegetable garden (not enough movies with subplots about oregano these days, I always say). It’s also surprisingly exciting for a film that consists largely of two old men talking. It’s a gentle, old-fashioned movie that makes a case for the gentle and old-fashioned.

The Two Popes is currently in theaters and it hits Netflix on December 20th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.