LFF: The Two Popes Review
The ongoing debate within the Catholic Church, of whether to continue down the road of tradition or liberalise religious values to encourage new people to join the faith, is a fascinating theological discussion, and one that theoretically has its perfect vehicle in The Two Popes. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (whose previous three screenplays all scored the best actor Oscar for their lead performer) has adapted his 2017 play The Pope for the big screen, and doesn’t shy away from controversial talking points within religious circles.
The pontiffs’ differing beliefs on everything from the way the church handled child sex abuse accusations, to thoughts on same-sex marriage and abortion, all appear here. But they are pretty continuously undermined by McCarten simultaneously wanting to make a by-the-numbers crowd pleasing hit in a similar vein to his previous work. As adapted by filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who now specialises in middling awards bait after arriving on the international scene with City of God 16 years ago, The Two Popes alternates between being a wacky buddy comedy and a more probing look at the decreasing relevance of the Catholic Church, never settling on a coherent tone. As with all biographical screenplays credited to McCarten, it’s an absolute mystery as to how it’s managed to become such a widely beloved crowdpleaser.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) has become a divisive figurehead for the Catholic faith, with hardline conservative views that are alienating people from joining the religion, and deterring any meaningful action on the various child sex abuse scandals in the church. Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) has written to the Pope in the hope of an early retirement, as he can’t in all good consciousness continue to represent the faith. He’s invited out to Vatican City, but upon his arrival, he soon learns that Benedict intends to stand down and trigger the process of electing a new pope - which would put Jorge back in contention, after coming second in 2005, complicating his wishes to stand down from the church.
Despite weighty themes, the film feels at its most comfortable when operating in a lighthearted register, establishing the two popes as a bantering double act. Jorge, who would become Pope Francis, is played by Pryce as the straight man, a humble and down to earth man who would rather stand down than be the chosen person to help reform a troubled institution. Anthony Hopkins, on the other hand, appears to be channeling Dave Bautista’s performance as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, getting as much comic weight as possible from Pope Benedict’s literal mindedness and repeat inability to understand jokes or pop culture references. The Two Popes may be flawed, but this mismatched duo formula does at least provide some laughs along the way.
But this is precisely the problem. As the film digs into Jorge’s controversial past in Argentina, albeit a simplified account of his relations with the country’s military dictatorship of the seventies, the film’s admirable need to explore the problematic histories of both popes (and how their views are out of step with the modern world) sits awkwardly when placed next to comedic moments. You can’t go from the pair agreeing on homosexuality being a sin, moments before a wacky sequence where Pope Benedict waxes lyrical about his favourite TV show, an Austrian programme about a dog who works as a detective.
The Two Popes is very consistently jarring, attempting to make the audience view both cardinals as fun, and more down to earth, than assumed, even as their values are repeatedly shown to be questionable at best, abhorrent at worst. By the time the film reaches a sequence where the two meet up to watch the 2014 World Cup final, a set piece bizarrely staged like an episode of Gogglebox, it becomes clear that the film would rather be a crowdpleaser than embracing something far more complicated about the characters - even as it never hides their beliefs.
The Two Popes is currently playing at the London Film Festival. It will receive a limited cinema release on November 29, and will arrive on Netflix on December 20.