A pair of stodgy elderly gents sit around for two hours chatting with each other in a smartly crafted blend of comedy and drama. They tell jokes, discuss life’s great mysteries, and even hurl taunts about each other’s favorite sports teams, sometimes over a meal of pizza and Fanta. It’s a plot we’ve seen many times before—from I’m Not Rappaport to Grumpy Old Men to The Odd Couple. But the two gents in this case are none other than Pope Francis and former Pope Benedict XVI, and that, as they say, changes everything.
No one will ever know how grounded in reality The Two Popes is. Certainly screenwriter Anthony McCarten has a proven record of taking us inside the minds of real-life folks, having given us The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but he’s never gone as far behind the curtain as he does here. There are only two men on the planet who can attest to the film’s accuracy, and neither of them is talking. Whatever liberties are taken, the film still surprises not only with its candor but its humor And, as an absolute showcase for the outstanding talents of Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, it soars as a memorable achievement.
Set against the backdrop of Benedict’s resignation of the papacy in 2013, The Two Popes tracks the evolution of the relationship between the two men—from contentious arguments about the state of the Church to a mutual respect. The film is, first and foremost, a character study—a sort of My Dinner with Andre, if Andre and Wally were the most sacred living things for a devout following of 1.2 billion people. Aside from the physical similarities (Pryce, particularly), the two actors throw their all into the roles and offer up a masterclass, trading barbs and jousting like a couple of old souls who still have plenty left in the tank.
Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God), with the aid of his superb cinematographer César Charlone, brings the story to life in a quietly artistic way, seamlessly interspersing the fictionalized events with real news footage and also using stylized techniques to further the narrative throughout. Flashbacks to Francis’ early years, particularly during the 1976 Argentinian coup, also give much-needed depth and perspective, helping us crack the veneer of the man whom the entire world is aware of but doesn’t really know.
The plot structure of The Two Popes may indeed be conventional (it’s still largely just two men sittin’ around talkin’), but in Meirelles’ expert hands and with the outstanding work of Hopkins and Pryce, the film emerges as a compelling look at religion, culture, history, and personality—and a surprising standing as one of the best of the year.