There are films, and then there are prestige films: large, often dramatic pieces that feature an assemblage of A-list actors—usually those with extensive theater experience under their belt—and sweeping plot lines that are set against serious themes that fall within social or political realms. While boasting of artistic integrity, these prestige films also tick the boxes in a checklist of elements that likely make it a contender for the next awards season.
At first glance, The Two Popes seems like your standard prestige film: The movie stars Academy Award and BAFTA winner Anthony Hopkins, who needs no introduction especially among the most fervent cinephiles; and Jonathan Pryce, also popularly known for playing the Engineer in Miss Saigon’s 1989 run alongside Lea Salonga. Hopkins and Pryce star as Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, before the latter was elected as Pope Francis in 2013, as the movie showcases the progression into an unlikely friendship between the popes, while touching on different takes on the Catholic faith from the eyes of two different individuals. And really, what theme can be more serious than Catholicism itself, a long-standing religion that has spanned over 2,000 years with its own controversies to unpack?
As far as the movie’s events are concerned, there is nothing to spoil: They’re based, if partially, from real-world events. Majority of the film takes place in the midst of Pope Benedict XVI’s impending resignation following a slew of uncovered scandals within the Church and the VatiLeaks, and with Bergoglio reluctantly taking the reins. Over the course of the film, Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis engage in a series of exchanges that range from the passive-aggressive to the nearly confrontational, until they finally form an unlikely friendship.
Far removed from the trappings of commercially successful blockbusters, The Two Popes mainly showcases Hopkins and Pryce in several events of dialogues, as the movie features only a handful of characters that serve bit roles and mere plot devices rather than actual drivers of the story. Given these elements, it wouldn’t be surprising to mistake The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles, as a somber and dry film (read: snooze fest) you might tend to skip on a Friday night when you would rather be unwinding with a comfortable guilty pleasure. But make no mistake: While it has its earnest and insightful moments, the movie is far from the solemn, dreary piece one might expect.
When you’ve exhausted all your binge-worthy favorites on Netflix, it may be time to give The Two Popes a stream. Below, we’ve listed all the highs and lows of the film so you can decide for yourself.
What I Liked About It
The movie features strong actors as rich, complex characters.
From the title alone, The Two Popes is meant to showcase Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio as opposites of each other, in spite of being of the same faith. Anyone who has seen the trailer or is simply up to date on current affairs can easily see the characterization between the two: Benedict XVI or the German-born Joseph Ratzinger is the rigid, strait-laced theologian and classical music enthusiast, while Bergoglio is the warm, amiable parish priest from Buenos Aires who rides the bus, and loves his tango and football like a true-blue Argentine.
The stark contrast is immediately established in the movie’s opening, during the pope election at the Vatican following the death of Pope John Paul II. Taking a break from the day’s proceedings, the two then-cardinals share an encounter in a restroom as they wash their hands side by side, with Ratzinger asking Bergoglio—in Latin, no less—what “hymn” he has been humming: It’s ABBA’s Dancing Queen, with the ubiquity of the ‘70s Swedish pop group lost on the former. Their differences are further magnified as later scenes unfold: The traditional Ratzinger confidently lobbies the college of cardinals for their votes; meanwhile, Bergoglio, a reform-forwarding Jesuit, desperately tries to stay in the background yet emerges as runner-up to Ratzinger, to the chagrin of both characters.
The two cardinals are as distinct from each other as day and night, yet the performances of Hopkins and Pryce add nuances that further flesh out their personalities. Hopkins adds a sentimental flair to the scholarly and conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who for all his rigid demeanor, has a certain vulnerability lying underneath. On the other hand, Pryce plays the charming and popular Cardinal Bergoglio with little effort, yet portrays him with a certain graveness that hints to a troubled past. The actors’ performances add depth to the roles that have already been so vividly written by Anthony McCarten.
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are perfectly matched in this film, with a dynamic chemistry that lends to a fluidity in their performances. For all their distinct qualities, Ratzinger and Bergoglio represent something much larger than their own individualities: The two popes personify two schools of thought within the Catholic Church that have been at odds for ages. Ratzinger questions Bergoglio’s stance on contentious topics such as the cardinals’ lifestyles, celibacy, and homosexuality. Bergoglio fires back at the pope by saying that the Church is losing people because of its unwillingness to change. Both actors exchange in a constant banter in the course of a little over two hours, and the lines come out as naturally and with as little effort as possible, with no lull or dull moment as the movie progresses in a brisk yet consistent pace.
The movie is marked by lush cinematography and rich dialogue.
In The Two Popes, the camera never stays still; it subtly zooms in on a face during a dialogue, follows the characters’ movements, and quivers at the slightest hint of confrontation. In succeeding scenes, it also frames characters in interesting snapshots of moments, such as in a picturesque Italian garden, in between a doorway, and while showing off the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel. These visuals are accompanied by snappy, smart dialogue that allow for insightful moments and introspection without sounding stiff and pretentious. Nor do the lines seek to patronize or force some kind of moral—even when touching on Catholic themes, they never become alienating for any non-Catholic or non-religious viewer.
“It seems to me that we are no longer part of this world,” Bergoglio laments to the pope, who later elaborates while global environmental destruction and inequality were happening, the Church worried about arguably trivial concerns such as holding masses in Latin or the prohibition of girls as altar servers. The mention of these real-world issues make them relatable to viewers regardless of beliefs, and acknowledges some of the criticisms that have been hurled at the Catholic faith in recent times without killing the air or turning overly serious.
There are unexpectedly funny moments.
The lines in The Two Popes never get too smart for its own good, injecting the movie with funny and lighthearted moments just before it veers off into stuffy prestige territory. There is the overture of Dancing Queen that plays during the pope election in the beginning of the film, just after a solemn traditional hymn ends. Pryce’s Bergoglio, ever the humble and simple parish priest, makes fun of his own appearance and clothing, and gets rejected by an airline operator after he attempts to book his own flight over the phone. Meanwhile, Ratzinger, who is older and understandably frailer than Bergoglio, is constantly admonished by his FitBit to keep moving as he stops to rest.
As the casual and no-frills priest, Jonathan Pryce is expectedly more overtly comical than Anthony Hopkins, but that’s not to say that the latter doesn’t deliver in his own funny moments. At an initial (and perhaps final) attempt at humor, Ratzinger’s joke is supposed to fall flat, yet Hopkins’ own deadpan delivery adds its own unexpectedly funny appeal.
There are other light and relatable moments in the film: The popes connect with each other and share insights over Italian pizza and Fanta soda (that’s Royal, for us Pinoys!), which Bergoglio consumes with great delight after a comically long prayer by Pope Benedict XVI. This is a real-life reference: Pope Benedict XVI was said to have loved the orange soda with his dinner, to the point that the Coca-Cola company sent him several cases so he wouldn’t run out.
Of course, there’s the sequence at the end where Bergoglio, now as Pope Francis, finally gets the Pope Emeritus to watch and bond over football—specifically the 2014 World Cup Finals between Argentina and Germany, and finally gets Ratzinger to engage in a bit of good old trash talk.
What I Didn’t Like About It
The movie practically glosses over the Church’s pertinent issues.
There are very few things to find fault with this movie, especially with a meaty and clever screenplay, as well as a fantastic set of actors to match its caliber. Understandably, the movie seeks to humanize both popes, who given their status in the Church as the highest authority, exhibits a larger-than-life image. Ultimately, the film’s treatment of the main characters allows sympathy for both popes regardless of religious affiliation. Still, this is a movie about Catholic popes in a Catholic setting, and its history and context cannot be ignored. While the movie touches on the Church’s most pressing scandals, it does so in a way that almost feels tokenistic. In a scene where Pope Benedict XVI finally confides in Pope Francis, what could have been a pivotal turn in their relationship becomes undermined and even anti-climactic as the entire dialogue is muted.
They could have given Ratzinger a more comprehensive backstory.
While the movie top-bills Hopkins and Pryce equally, the film is largely seen from Bergoglio’s point of view, which is why the film understandably devotes more time to his backstory in a series of flashbacks (Argentine actor Juan Minujïn plays the young priest Bergoglio). Yet Anthony Hopkins gives a sublime performance as the prissy and uptight pope that he lends an air of mystery to Ratzinger and what seems to be quirks and touch points on an almost clinical personality. One thing that is made clear in the film is that Pope Benedict XVI is a scholar through and through—he is the only one in the film who insists on the use of Latin, and by his own admission, hid from the world in study as he engrossed himself in books and texts. While an equally long backstory as Bergoglio’s would have undoubtedly stretched the running time, it would have been nice to see some history behind Ratzinger’s character and why he is the way he is.
So Should You Watch It?
If you have any misgivings about watching a movie that heavily features religious figures, it’s time to quell them. While The Two Popes is a movie about religion, it is not a religious movie; it’s a piece that likely won’t make it to the usual fare of films being shown throughout the Holy Week. Ultimately, it’s a film that examines two opposite individuals in detail, who lay out their differences through communication and constant conversations, finding a semblance of reconciliation later on. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce engage in charming performances, allowing each other to shine as they deliver whip-smart lines in the most natural way possible.
That said, The Two Popes does teeter between a movie of prestige and one with universal appeal. For all its smart and funny moments, it’s not a highly cerebral film that requires much overthinking. Like any conversation, it’s one that’s best enjoyed in the present and in spontaneity. So don’t be surprised when the movie reaps several awards in the coming months.