Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Movie Review: The Two Popes

The Two Popes *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles.
Written by: Anthony McCarten.
Starring: Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis), Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict), Juan Minujín (Pope Francis Young), Sidney Cole (Cardinal Turkson), Federico Torre (Medina Estevez), Pablo Trimarchi (Militar), Juan Miguel Arias (Paolo Gabriele), Lisandro Fiks (Father Jalics), María Ucedo (Esther Ballestrine).
I am not Catholic, but my wife is, and I remember how upset she got when she found out that Pope Benedict was resigning from being Pope. She didn’t particularly like Benedict – she is a progressive Catholic is most ways, but believes, much like the character of Pope Francis does in The Two Popes, that Popes cannot and should not resign. Having two Popes – even if one isn’t technically Pope anymore – was something that made her very upset.
The Two Popes is about that very idea. It takes place the year before Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) resigns when he invites the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) to the Vatican. Francis thinks it is because he has asked to retire – but it’s not that. Benedict knows that the future Francis got a number of votes when Benedict was elected – and could well become Pope when he resigns. The two disagree on pretty much everything – but Benedict, in his wisdom, thinks that perhaps it is he who is wrong – or at least, out of touch. He wants to get to know the man who may take over for him.
What follows is basically a two hander for two terrific veteran actors at the top of their game. You can complain – and perhaps justly – that they cast two Welsh actors to play an Argentinan and a German, but you cannot argue with their performances. Hopkins has often been on cruise control over the past 20 years or so, but there’s little denying that when he wants to be, and is given the chance, he can still deliver a great performance. His Pope Benedict is a stubborn man in many ways – and out of touch. He knows nothing except for the Church and its teachings. He has been so inside its politics for so long that he has lost touch with everything else – which has led to some of the worst things the Catholic Church has ever done in its long, not so great history. He is also a very smart man – someone well taught, and well-spoken. He always wanted to be Pope, but now that he is, he is more isolated than ever. He can see that the Church needs to change, but also that he will never be able to make those changes himself.
Pryce is given the more plum role of the future Pope Francis – a man of principle, a man of the people who has spent so much time with the poor, that he is better able to see precisely what it is that they need. He is horrified by the child molestation scandal, how the church treats the poor from their own opulent houses of worship, and how the church refuses to modernize. He is also ashamed of his own past – which he will eventually tell Pope Benedict is a moving sequence – the mistakes of a young priest, that still haunt him decades later. You will undeniably favor Pope Francis – as the movie does – but come to respect both men.
The film gives these two greats actors a chance to play off each other. It was based on a play by Anthony McCarten – who also wrote the screenplay, but I don’t think the play was ever produced. It feels like a stage piece in many ways – the director, Fernando Meirelles, doesn’t do much except let the pair of actors go, and dive into their lines with all they have. It is enough to make the film very entertaining – even all if it is all talk, for more than two hours.
And yet, for me, the film pulls its punches a little too much. We all know the role Pope Benedict plays in covering up the clergy molestation scandal that has rocked – and continues to rock – the church. The film briefly mentions it near the beginning of their first meeting, but Pope Benedict shuts it down just as quickly. Late in the film, Benedict will ask the future Pope Francis to hear his confession – and we hear enough to know what it will be about, but then the sound cuts out, and we do not hear the rest. Leaving this mostly unsaid – simply alluded to – allows you to still like and respect both men – and yet also, it feels like perhaps the most important thing is left unsaid in the film. The film feels incomplete unless they are going to address the elephant in the room – and it feels like the film does just enough so that you cannot complain they didn’t address it at all, and then immediately cuts it off.
That’s a shame really – because it really does feel like Pryce and Hopkins are going on all cylinders here, digging into their juicy roles, and giving it there all. Hopkins is of course one of the most celebrated actors of his generation - an Oscar winner, and multiple nominee, beloved by many. Pryce has always felt to too overlooked – you look back at his career, and it’s full of great work, and yet he has never even been nominated for an Oscar, let alone won one. He’s always great – and he is certainly equal to the task of going toe-to-toe with Hopkins.
If the movie were as good as the two actor in it, then this would one of the great films of the year. It isn’t – and it’s because it pulls back, when it needs to push forward. It’s too bad – the church needs this type of dialogue, and needs it at the highest levels, and out in the open. Even if it’s in a work of fiction like this.

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