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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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Vatican building by Verica Prekic, Serbia https://www.flickr.com/photos/39262985@N00/
Vatican Cardinals conclave by François Pichard, Paris, France https://www.flickr.com/photos/tchuntfr/