‘The Two Popes’ Review: Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce Deliver a Thoughtful Meditation on Religion and Spirituality

Netflix

The Two Popes begins with the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II, an event I remember vividly despite being only 6 years old at the time. As a Catholic school attendee, I was made to spend the whole six-hour school day watching the ceremony and, as one would assume, the funeral of a Pope is not the most stimulating of television for a child. Events like this led me to become fairly disillusioned to due process and pageantry of Catholicism, so when a film like The Two Popes comes around, one that seems to be based entirely around that level of pageantry, it’s difficult for me to not go into it with the highest degree of cynicism.

Well, consider me surprised when I write that The Two Popes actually takes a rather thoughtful, considered approach to the modern-day Catholic Church. There’s neither righteous condemnation or blind worship here —  in following the 2013 transfer of the Papacy from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) to Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), director Fernando Meirelles manages to find a healthy middle ground, highlighting the failures of the church but always recognizing its importance. The majority of the movie focuses on simple conversational scenes and the interplay between the Popes — Benedict is the more conservative of the two men, insistent on maintaining Church traditions despite many of his transgressions being revealed in a series of widely publicized Vatican leaks. Francis, on the other hand, is very reluctant to accept the extravagances of the Church, seeing them as unjust and unnecessary when reforms should be made to the ensure that the Papacy can remain relevant.

The Two Popes is hardly a subtle movie, with both men directly stating their beliefs and philosophies across various arguments, but it ends up being a more exciting watch than it sounds. For instance, Meirelles never reduces these scenes to dry theological debates; they’re all peppered with genuinely funny character beats and work towards constructing a touching relationship between two generations of churchmen, carefully exploring the differences in spirituality between the two. To call this a movie about two Popes debating the state of the Catholic Church is maybe a little misleading — you shouldn’t go in expecting Sorkin-esque lightning speed dialogue battles between these two characters. The Two Popes is a fairly relaxed affair, the type of easy viewing that will make it a natural fit for when it launches on Netflix this December.

Not all of The Two Popes manages to be so pleasant and easy-going though. The latter half is plagued with overly-long and morose flashback sequences to Francis’s life as a young man, and while these sufficiently develop his relationship to the Church they do so at the expense of completely disrupting the pace of the movie. It’s at this point that the overly-long 125-minute runtime starts feeling its length, and leads the movie to sadly whimper over the finishing line, even if the final handful of scenes post-flashbacks do bring back some of the charms.

Regardless, when you have actors as talented as Hopkins and Pryce gracing the screen delivering some of their best work in years, the whole film remains eminently watchable and stands as a refreshing example of the type of historical biopic it’d be nice to see more of. The Two Popes is not the stuffy, pro-faith drama you’d perhaps expect, but rather a tenderly realized story of friendship and faith that just drifts by like a calm, comforting breeze.

★½

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