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Among many higher-profile films at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, The Two Popes might turn out to be the sleeper hit of the entire four-day movie orgy. Anchored by two outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, the film is a triumph of writing as well as unostentatious filmmaking. One of Netflix’s strong original works, the film should also score well in theatrical showings.
The first thing to note is that there is nothing preachy about this pic written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and directed by Fernando Meirelles, who earned a surprising but well-deserved Oscar nomination for his electrifying Brazilian drama City of God. These filmmakers have told the story of how the startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) in 2013 led to the appointment of the first pope from Latin America, Pope Francis (Pryce).
The story begins in 2005, when the death of Pope John Paul II led to Benedict’s ascension. But the surprising second place competitor in the initial voting was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina. Several years later, after mounting scandals inside the Catholic Church and the Vatican, Bergoglio decided to resign his position as cardinal in Argentina. This much of the story is known, but McCarten then decided to speculate on a possible meeting between Benedict and Bergoglio, in which the pope refuses to accept the cardinal’s resignation but instead engages with him in a series of searching conversations. During these talks, the conservative Benedict hopes to imagine whether the far more progressive Bergoglio might be a worthy successor.
The first triumph of the movie is that the sharply written dialogue between the two men plays completely convincingly. There is no way of knowing what might have been said by these two very different men, but from everything we know about their backgrounds, the exchange of ideas seems plausible.
Of course, the success of the film depends even more profoundly on the performances of the two lead actors. Alternately acerbic, fierce, tender and fragile, Hopkins verifies his strength with one of the most vivid turns of his long career. (It is a bit sobering to remember that he gave one of his first notable screen performances in The Lion in Winter more than 50 years ago.)
Pryce has not been quite as visible as Hopkins in recent years. Although he may be remembered for some of his stage and TV performances as well as his turn as Juan Peron in the movie version of the musical, Evita (where he played another Argentinian), his film career has receded in recent years. He burst back into the limelight with a somewhat underrated performance as Glenn Close’s egotistical husband in last year’s The Wife, but it was Close who grabbed most of the attention in that movie. Now Pryce goes head-to-head against Hopkins in The Two Popes, and matches him in subtlety as well as charismatic force.
Since the heart of the pic lies in the conversations between these two characters and acting titans, it is a tribute to Meirelles’ direction that the film never seems static. Much of it is told through some of the most eloquent close-ups seen onscreen since the chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman. We never tire of watching the expressive faces of these two master performers.
The film does venture outside the Vatican chambers (including a remarkable recreation of the Sistine Chapel) for scenes at Benedict’s bucolic summer residence as well as in the slums of Buenos Aires. Meirelles also incorporates flashbacks to Francis’ youth, when he first decided to enter the priesthood and to the most controversial part of his career during the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. Juan Minujin, one of the only other actors with a significant role in the movie, plays the younger Bergoglio and gives a commanding performance. Bergoglio was criticized at the time by fellow Jesuit priests and others in Argentina for not taking a sufficiently forceful stand against the brutal military regime. And this is the chapter in his life that makes Bergoglio feel unworthy of the position of pope.
Although The Two Popes does not make this point explicitly, the concluding scenes that show Pope Francis speaking passionately in favor of migrants and other oppressed groups suggest that this might have been his way of expiating the one blemish on his record of service and self-sacrifice. Francis has, of course, been widely admired for his progressive positions on a whole range of controversial contemporary issues. But message-mongering is not the primary purpose of the drama imagined by McCarten and Meirelles. Rather, they have constructed a searching exchange between two men of very different backgrounds and beliefs and have encouraged us to see the growing understanding between these antagonists as a model that might point the way forward in an increasingly divided world.
Production company: Netflix India
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Producers: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich, Tracey Seaward
Executive producer: Mark Bauch
Director of photography: Cesar Charlone
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Costume designer: Luca Canfora
Editor: Fernando Stutz
Music: Bryce Dessner
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
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