The two popes of the title are Pope Benedict XVI, Austrian born Joseph Ratzinger and his successor, the current Pope Francis, Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio. The meat of the film consists of fictional and imagined conversations between the two of them, when the conservative Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) has decided to make papal history by resigning due to ill health and is considering supporting as his successor the more liberal and reformist Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who was his runner up in the previous papal election.
And while that doesn’t sound like particularly gripping material for a movie, certainly for non-Catholic members of the audience, director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have made it so, largely through the strong and appealing performances of their leading actors.
We first meet Bergoglio delivering a lively and enthusiastically received sermon in the slums of Buenos Aires, peppered with football references and teachings from the Bible. Bergoglio is then summoned to Rome with the other cardinals for the 2005 election of the new pope, following the death of Pope John Paul II, where Ratzinger is elected but Bergoglio is a close second, indicating the opposing views in the Church between tradition and reform. Seven years later Bergoglio, disenchanted with the path the church is taking, tenders his resignation to Benedict. When his letters are ignored he travels to Rome in person.
One of the elements that makes the film so watchable is César Charlene’s cinematography. The parade of the cardinals in their crimson robes through the marble halls of the Vatican is just breathtakingly beautiful, as are other scenes such as the gardens of the papal summer residence, where many of the two men’s conversations take place. The other is the pleasure in watching two highly accomplished actors do what they do best. Hopkins as the white haired, severe and hooded eyed Ratzinger, Pryce the more approachable and humorous Bergoglio.
The film itself also well laced with humour, as when during that election period the two men meet for the first time in the luxurious marble Vatican toilets and Ratzinger is puzzled by the Abba tune that Bergoglio is humming. And then later, when Bergoglio is defeated by the problems of trying to book a flight in the modern world and has to seek the advice of one of the young and more clued up Swiss Guards in the Vatican. And listen out for Bergoglio’s Jesuit joke. Clever fellows, those Jesuits,
Both men, despite their calling, have past sins to repent and atone for. For Bergoglio it is what he perceives as his failure to defend his priests sufficiently by speaking out against the brutal junta regime in Argentina in the seventies. Bergoglio’s background as a younger man and played by Juan Minujin, is effectively covered in black and white flashbacks going from his rejection of his fiancée in the fifties in favour of his priestly calling to that failure of action, which haunts him.
Frustratingly though Benedict’s background does not get the same treatment. At the time of his papacy rumours were rife of corruption and other matters in the Vatican. But we learn nothing of his response to those corruption allegations, nothing of the youthful Nazi past of which some accuse him and most frustratingly of all, in an otherwise most effective scene where the two popes confess their sins to each other, what we gather is Benedict’s confession of his failure to act over the many allegations of sexual abuse in the priesthood, is acted out in dumb show. Maybe there are legal reasons for this?
The sheer ostentatious luxury of the papal lifestyle is also somewhat uncomfortable in the context of the modern world – a lifestyle which Pope Francis, as portrayed in the film, appears to be playing down a touch.
However, reservations aside, for its actors, its production values and its intelligent and literate script, this film is well worth your attention.