Early in the current Netflix release, “The Two Popes,” I recalled the outlandish, unexpected success of “My Dinner With Andre,” Louis Malle’s 1981 film featuring two guys talking—and talking, and talking, for 111 minutes—across a café table in Manhattan. That was pretty much it as far as plot and characters go, but oh, what glorious talk it was.
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s “The Two Popes” features quite a bit more dramatic backdrop and tension than did Malle’s film, but in its essence, it’s a kind of intellectually, theologically combative buddy movie that features two marvelously gifted (and hard-working!) actors reveling in sometimes solemn, sometimes fierce, and often enough humorous, even tender dialogue about matters of great import to themselves, their church, and the world beyond.
Two Welsh actors do virtually all the lifting required by producer and writer Anthony McCarten’s smart and lyrical script. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, the severe Germanic ex-Vatican enforcer whose papacy was marked by a stalwart defense of Catholic tradition and orthodoxy. He’s the conservative, a kind of Dick Cheney figure, with hair.
His nemesis, from sunny, tango-and-soccer-besotted Argentina, is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce. Bergoglio wound up succeeding Benedict to become Pope Francis, and almost immediately set about undoing, to the extent he has been capable of within the political machinations of the Vatican, a good deal of his predecessor’s doctrinal rigidity, in both substance and tone.
Their movie stage is set by Bergoglio’s journey to the Vatican to plead with Benedict to accept his resignation, after the pontiff had ignored his previous multiple letters to that effect. Bergoglio projects burnout with the institutional church and is ready to become just a country priest once again.
Given their doctrinal differences, one would have expected Benedict to accept Bergoglio’s plea post-haste, and perhaps he would have if this plot point were true to life. But “The Two Popes” is a fictionalized version of events, many of which did happen, others the product of imagination and, like all great fiction, none the less powerful for it.
Both actors dazzle, from the early garden scene where their veins pop in the parry-and-thrust of debate over the direction of the church, to the end, when they’re watching their home countries square off in the World Cup while drinking beer and eating pizza in Benedict’s TV room.
In between, we see two robed, ecclesiastical-hatted men wrestle with their own and each other’s consciences, their flaws and failings no less common, for all their projected sanctity, than the most common of their flock. But the difference, which is not lost on the gravely etched faces of both men, is that their decisions and actions are capable of shaking the very foundations of the still formidable 1.2 billion Catholic church members worldwide, not to mention the politics of the larger world where the church, for all its grievous failings, still retains some moral clout.
The permeability of that clout is highlighted in the subplot of Bergoglio’s ultimate failure to keep at bay the rapacious military junta that brought, with America’s blessing, a 10-year reign of terror (1973-83) upon Argentina. The period, named “The Epoch of the Disappeared,” was marked by the imprisonment, torture, and murder of some 30,000 dissidents and activists, including two of Bergoglio’s own priests.
The circumstances of their demise remain controversial today, and the weight of Bergoglio’s failure is draped heavily upon him in a key scene where he and Benedict ultimately offer each other confession and absolution for their all-too-human moral failings. (Much less is made of the sexual abuse scandal that has continued to shock the sensibilities of the world right through both men’s papacies.)
For all its essence as a long conversation between two old men, the movie’s 125 minutes move by at a crackling pace, with grave matters of theology, accountability, conscience and grace interspersed with wry humor, soaring musical backdrops, quick cuts, and perhaps paradoxically, a profoundly humanistic vision of the wrestlings of the human heart.
Here we are, in these bodies, with this consciousness as both burden and gift, our choices ours to make, our doubts and fears ours to overcome, our beliefs giving way to actions—or passivities—that will affect our world and those we love in either case.
Coming to accept our roles and responsibilities in that world is neither for the faint of heart nor, in the end, for the humorless or unforgiving, a realization that “The Two Popes” brings to bear in a tender and redemptive tale deserving of all the plaudits that have come its way.
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I watched “The Two Popes” late last night & found the back and forth between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, though often fictionalized (e.g. watching the 2014 World Cup together) as a more than entertaining way to define the philosophical and religious differences between the old guard and the new. Its message goes far beyond Vatican City. Seven years prior to Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre,” Peter Glenville directed the film “Becket” (Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton, also Welsh, as Thomas Becket). It is a “must-see” movie that dramatically contrasts between the two. Interestingly, four years after “Becket,” Peter O’Toole plays Henry II again in “The Lion in Winter,” also another “must-see.” The interplay between Henry and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) is masterful. By the way, Richard I (better known as the Lionheart), one of Henry’s sons, was played by Anthony Hopkins.
Andrew: Couldn’t agree more. As an ex-Catholic and someone who scoffs at most every pronouncement that the Church makes, I was, nonetheless, mesmerized by every moment of this film. If nothing else, just the sheer joy of watching two actors strut their stuff made up for the ridiculousness of some of the so-called moral decisions being debated. (I believe that the Church long ago lost its moral authority.)
By the way, I too was immediately reminded of My Dinner with Andre and received a much-needed reminder that I need to seek out these types of movies. (I’ll follow up on Robert Spencer’s references.)
Side note: On a visit to the Vatican a few years ago, Pope Francis drove by and waved to my group and I could swear he wagged his finger at me.
Thanks for those tips, Robert; saw Lion and Becket but so long ago now I don’t remember one thing. Will look forward to them.
Robby, some half hour or so into the film I suddenly realized I had so totally bought into the roles these two guys were playing that I hadn’t even noted the genius of their acting. Was a true joy to watch them tearing it up as they did—they must’ve had a great time.
Am curious what you mean by “so-called moral decisions.” Mind elaborating just a bit? Yes, the church has been on a downward spiral for what seems like forever with all the sexual abuse and coverups, but just when I’m wondering why anyone would remain or convert to Catholicism I attend some concert with deep and stirring liturgical music, or drive by a Catholic church out of which parishioners are pouring out wave upon wave, multiple masses a day, and I have to admit: Reports on its ultimate death may be premature…
Brief question: Is the fact that you, Robby and I are former Catholics have anything to do with our commentary?
Well, I think everyone is affected in one way or other by early religious orientation, but it certainly seems to me, purely subjective impression here, that ex-Catholics carry it more heavily, with more and lasting reverberations, than do those of other faiths. But that may be because there are so many more of us, so we more dominate the conversations about religious upbringings!