The Two Popes is like the Roman Catholic version of The Odd Couple. All you need is to replace Jonathan Pryce with Walter Matthau, Anthony Hopkins with Jack Lemmon, and have Neil Simon throw in a few more one-liners. Fernando Meirelles’ film works best as a buddy picture about two frenemies trying to find a compromise. This gives the film an identity that stands out in a sea overflowing with biopics. Whenever The Two Popes does start to take a more traditional approach, though, it kind of blends into the biographical background.
After Pope Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul II, we all assumed that he’d be a staple of pop culture for some time. Less than a decade later, though, Benedict stepped down and Pope Francis was suddenly the most popular person on Twitter. The Two Popes fills in the gap between this transitional period. Even if it’s not always historically accurate, it is a thoroughly engaging exploration about two very different, yet equally devout, men. Part of that has to do with the witty screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who’s made a living off biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, and The Theory of Everything. Of course, those movies wouldn’t have worked without Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, or Eddie Redmayne. Likewise, The Two Popes would cease to exist without Pryce or Hopkins.
Pryce portrays Francis as a modest man of the people who believes the Church needs to adapt with the times, or at least meet society half-way. Hopkins takes on a conservative loner persona as Benedict, who believes the Church needs to stand by its traditions, no matter how much the world changes. The scenes between Francis and Benedict make for a lot of stimulating conservations about what needs to be preserved and what needs to be sacrificed in order to bring religion into the 2010s. Despite not seeing eye to eye, Benedict nonetheless respects Francis and comes to realize that he may be the guiding light who can save their Church.
Initially, Francis finds himself walking on eggshells in Benedict’s presence. This makes it all the more jarring when Benedict tells Francis that he’s stepping down as Pope and the humble cardinal is to be his successor. Francis objects to such a notion, not only because of what Benedict’s exit would mean for the Church, but due to a Francis’ actions during the Dirty War. This is where The Two Popes goes through an identity crisis. Suddenly, the film becomes a straight-forward biopic about young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, played by Juan Minujín. While these flashbacks aren’t poorly executed per se, they needlessly hijack the movie and could’ve been summed up in a monologue. If the film wanted to incorporate flashbacks about one of the two Popes, it probably should’ve been Benedict. He’s the one who’s been keeping a dark secret about the Church, but his crisis of faith is glanced over compared to Francis’ past.
As much as the flashbacks drag, The Two Popes does pick up momentum whenever Pryce and Hopkins are onscreen together. While most of the scenes consist of two men talking to each other, Meirelles brings a cinematic touch to material that may’ve seemed better suited for the stage on paper. This has a lot to do with the gorgeous production design. Even when the filmmakers turn to CGI or green screens, the audience genuinely feels like they’ve been transported to Rome. At times César Charlone’s cinematography can get a little too up close and personal. For the most part, though, Meirelles paints an intimate portrait between two powerhouse actors. Just be prepared to fast-forward through some of the flashbacks, which shouldn’t be too hard since this is a Netflix movie.