The Two Popes Review

Religion has always been, and will always be, a divisive topic. As far as religion goes, there is no bigger figurehead than the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, whose full title is bafflingly long (seriously Google it) and is supposedly the representation of God on Earth.

Whatever your views on religion, and the papacy, it’s almost guaranteed that you know about him, and chances are good that you’d remember watching the events depicted in this film as they happened.

Here’s a quick cliff notes version. In 2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigned, this was quite unexpected as no Pope had resigned for roughly 700 years. Popey B was a hardline conservative kind of Catholic, staunchly opposed to any reforms, seen by many as long overdue, by contrast, his successor Pope Francis (Popey F) was very much at the forefront of the reform movement.

So it’s within these event that we find this film based, a relationship between two holy men who see issues in very different ways, but are bonded together by their core beliefs; while also exploring what led to this almost unheard of event.

It is very much Popey F’s show here though, the narrative is strongly focused on his journey through the priesthood and eventual succession to the Papacy, while exploring the differing history of Argentina (his home country) as a whole.

This is best exemplified by a protracted sequence shot in black and white set in 1956 Buenos Aires which depicts the future Pope before he started in his path of celibacy, enjoying a dance and courting, gradually unfolding to show us his path to a holier calling. This is probably my favourite sequence in the film, it does a lot for the character to show the journey to where he ends up, one we don’t necessarily get with his predecessor, it also helps that its shot so beautifully.

Actually, the whole film has a wonderful, luxurious feel to it, especially in the long sections set in the Vatican, on painstakingly recreated sets whose grandeur matches the originals; it’s brightness perfectly translating to film and making for some excellent visual choices, whether their using the whole of the room for a shot, or just a section, the settings and cinematography never stops feeling grand and inspired.

No matter what your feelings towards the people portrayed in this film in real life, you can’t help but warm to them because of how they are written and acted. Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) gives off a weary, tired air, like a man who can’t carry the weight he’s expected to carry any longer, and his opposite number Francis (Jonathan Pryce) is frustrated and maybe even a little disillusioned with how the church runs, their stances putting them ostensibly at loggerheads, but the longer they spend together, the more their fondness for each other visibly grows.

The pair of performances of the titular Two Popes are measured and subtle, each man approaching their own characters differently, they both feel like they have weights on their shoulders that they allow themselves to release over the course of the narrative, and the pedigree of the actors chosen means that they fall naturally into place.

Anthony Hopkins in particular is on top form here, after a few questionable decisions in past years, with this and TV’s Westworld, it feels like he’s finding a refreshing energy again, and when he’s on top form he can still be one of the best screen actors in the world.

Both men are entrusted to carry this movie pretty much on their own, the framework never really changes, bar a few establishing scenes and flashbacks, the interactions between the two Pontiffs are the spine of the film, and for a film with such a dry sounding premise the fact that it more than pulls it off is remarkable in itself.

Yes, I suppose that’s my main criticism really, is that it can feel like a bit of a dry film, like it’s going out of its way to not upset the Catholic Church. It could have been more confrontational with its material, but I think it’s all the better for having a contemplative tone, and focusing on the two men as characters, it made the m very easy to warm to, even if it could have been more.

I enjoyed The Two Popes, but I doubt its a film I’ll be in a rush to revisit. Its performances and grand aesthetic carry a rather pedestrian and dry premise, and while it may prove to be memorable, amidst the waves of choices for viewers eyeballs, I wouldn’t blame anyone for skimming over this, but once you’ve seen it and been charmed by it, I doubt you’ll watch it and feel the same way.

I didn’t really know what to expect going in, whether it be a scathing indictment of the church and its followers or propaganda for it, and in truth, I think it’s neither. A passive portrayal of what may broadly be the truth that makes no great statements and challenges no ideals; and that’s fine, not every film has to start a revolution. I even managed to enjoy it quite a lot, but as I say, it’s not likely to be one that will stick with me.

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