Adapted from the 2017 play The Pope and written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody), The Two Popes is an imaginative take on a pivotal moment in the modern history of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly announced his resignation in 2013—the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years—citing a “lack of strength of mind and body” due to age. The conclave to select his successor occurred a month later, with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected as the new pontiff, taking the name Francis. The Two Popes explores the presumption that the details of Benedict’s resignation are a more intriguing story than a simple retirement.
The film starts in 2005 at the papal conclave following the death of Pope John Paul II. Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) places second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) in a series of four successive ballots requiring a two-thirds majority of electors to select the new pope. Ratzinger ascends to the papacy, taking the pontifical name Benedict.
It is at this point that the film takes creative license to build the central conceit: Several years into the papacy, Benedict’s church is embattled by scandals, and Bergoglio—a fierce critic of Benedict’s direction—is on the verge of retirement. When the pontiff summons Bergoglio to a meeting under the guise of interrogating the reasoning behind the cardinal’s desire to hang up his robes, what instead transpires is a revelation from Benedict that he is also on the verge of giving up his post. Benedict and his soon-to-be successor undertake a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world.
The screenplay by McCarten effectively balances moments of levity and weight, while director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) competently guides the film through a series of flashbacks into the early life of Bergoglio. Ultimately though, the success or failure of the film rests on the two pontificate performers who are positioned as the players in a mismatched buddy comedy. Pryce in particular offers a charming performance, expressing a teasing and probing wit that plays well off the stoic suspiciousness of Hopkins. For his part, Hopkins crafts a touching portrayal of Benedict, whose regret at never truly opening himself up to the world outside of the church humanizes him and undermines the conservative emotional walls he’s constructed over the decades.
The two popes are ostensibly opposites, Benedict a conservative, ivory tower academic theologian, who comes to lament his existence outside of the realm of earthly concerns, and Bergoglio, a cardinal of the common folk, living amongst his flock and focused on modernization and reform. Yet each man harbors a blotted past that they struggle to reckon with; Benedict fails in his handling of a series of crises including the cover-up of the widespread child sexual abuse claims against the church, and Bergoglio—who we see as a young man (played by Juan Minujín) in a series of flashbacks in 1970s Argentina—is likewise consumed by his acquiescence to his home country’s military dictatorship that killed untold thousands.
The film largely suffers in its narrative provision of absolution to its flawed protagonists. The men forgive each other for their sins without a rehabilitative or restorative process for the numerous victims of their malfeasance. The cycle of absolutist power continues, as the Vatican moves on in a tidy passage of power from one pope to the other, leaving us with little sense that the church is capable of doing the meaningful work of confessing its past failures and providing a beacon of hope for the future faithful. v