‘Tis the season for Oscar-worthy biopics. Around December of every year, Hollywood production companies release the biopics they think will get them awards recognition. In 2019, for the first time, Netflix joins the fray with their new drama The Two Popes. It depicts the conversations between Popes Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) amidst a potential change of direction for the political leanings of the Catholic Church. Francis is more progressive with his ideals while Benedict is very traditional, so while these discussions cause tension between the two, they also cause compromise and showcase two different viewpoints on life.
I had a couple fears going into this film. First, I figured a movie with the plot simply being “two people talk” would be tedious and time-wasting. Luckily, this could not be further from the truth: The Two Popes is more than interesting enough to justify its plot because of the topics addressed and the fantastic filmmaking on display. The dialogue between the two popes themselves is dynamic, emotional, and even funny, with screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) penning yet another immaculate biopic about some of the most important people in modern history. The decision is also made to include flashbacks that portray Pope Francis’ younger years, which adds more variety to the narrative. Francis’ past is fascinating, and the visualizations of the past are needed to understand the decisions he makes in the present day.
Another negative assumption I had about the film before viewing it was that the messages would be aimed towards viewers of the Christian faith, and any others need not pay attention. Again, I was wrong. Director Fernando Meirelles and McCarten have much more on their mind than validating viewers’ religious beliefs; they want to examine all the issues that plague both the Catholic Church and society as a whole, including the sexual misconduct of priests all over the world, the unwillingness of the two political sides to compromise, and even the general tendency to build walls over bridges. The movie uses the faith inherent to the story to examine the humanity in the characters, while also never invalidating their belief. By the end, viewers of any belief, including Christianity, will find they can pick up important lessons from the manner in which the two popes are portrayed.
Since this movie is mainly dialogue-based, the main two performances need to be electrifying for the narrative to land, and luckily both Pryce and Hopkins are more than up for the task. While neither of them try to do impersonations of their real-life counterparts, they do have palpable chemistry and they make McCarten’s dialogue leap off the screen. Neither one outperforms the other; they both compliment each other in a way that only two veteran actors could. Hopkins has to play the clueless and out-of-touch traditionalist while Pryce must play the refined yet socially aware progressive, and they both make it so the audience can easily understand either point of view.
Almost every technical aspect works here as well. Meirelles’ direction is impeccable; he hides so much metaphorical imagery throughout each scene that it made me want to rewind and watch again when each set piece concluded. His great eye for little details combined with the gorgeous cinematography from César Charlone and the jaw-dropping production design from Mark Tildesley creates a visually stunning product. The production and set designers had to completely recreate the Sistine Chapel for multiple scenes in this film, and it looks as though they shot it in the actual location. For that and many other reasons, Tildesley is a given to win an Academy Award for his work here. The only slight nitpick I have is that less documentary footage could have been used in the first act; it would have been more coherent to present that information through the narrative written in the script. However, even this does not make the movie any less interesting.
While The Two Popes may not be 100 percent historically accurate, the messages that the filmmakers are presenting and the talent on display here outweigh the importance of the faith to the actual events. After all, these conversations have not been confirmed as being true or false, so the speculation and liberties taken by McCarten could have some grounds to them. The discussions between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict reflect the widespread discussion that happens every single day in modern society, and this makes this film resonate far more than if it was completely true. The Two Popes is an unexpectedly important movie for this day and age, and those who are willing to listen will find much to take from this tale.
I give The Two Popes an A.