The Two Popes, in essence, is a story of a budding friendship — amidst the pompous decorations of the Vatican. Released in late November this year, it showcases the dramatic relationship between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), as they seek to find common ground and forge a new future for the Catholic Church. In a careful and attentive gesture, the film crafts an intricate image of the growth of this friendship — one that is imperfect, as all friendships are, but is still compelling to follow.
The story is simple: seven years after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio travels back to Rome in hopes to resign from his position as Archbishop. However, not all goes as planned, when Pope Benedict denies Bergolio his resignation — the two have their disagreement and escape to separate rooms. Undoubtedly, the differences between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergolio make themself seen: Pope Benedict, who is more conservative, even questions whether it is appropriate for the Cardinal to take part in his national dance, Tango. Gradually, the film explores the way how these two different men overcome these differences, allowing a friendship to emerge.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten, the film is a feast for the lovers of slow-burn relationship developments and carefully-crafted dialogues. In quick-paced exchanges, the viewers learn about the past, the present and the possible future of the Catholic Church, which concerns the two men. There is no doubt that the dialogue is what makes this film so great — after all, it is through this battle of wits that Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergolio eventually find common ground. Supplemented by the mesmerizing landscapes of the Italian countryside and the intricate details of the Vatican Palace, The Two Popes is pleasant to the eye as it is to the ear.
Certainly, the visual similarity between the two popes and their actor counterparts makes the film more immersive — as does the variety of languages included. From Latin to Spanish to Italian to English, each language allows the film to immediately introduce the audience to a different setting, in a flashback, perhaps. Or, a new mood, as Pope Benedict XVI mentions how he uses Latin to reprimand. The extreme immersive quality of the film makes it, at times, seem as if one is watching a documentary, rather than a work of fiction. The actors’ job is also partly to blame: both Pryce and Hopkins deliver a complex, but accessible portrayal of their characters.
What makes The Two Popes even more enjoyable is its stance within the middle ground of the two popes’ attitudes to the way they lead the Vatican. It does not endorse the approach of Pope Benedict XVI, but neither does it view Pope Francis as the virtuous hero in this story. The flashbacks to the past and references to news of the time show the flaws of these characters. It is through lighthearted activities, however, that it can be seen how they are human too: one enjoys watching football, but the other prefers a tv show. There is no blame — the film stands in a moral middle-ground, allowing the viewers to focus on the relationship between the two men, above everything.
The Two Popes is undoubtedly one of the best films of this year — a hidden gem, that without extreme action or heightened dramatism, manages to produce a compelling and pleasant picture. With care and attention, it manages to navigate certain heavy topics, placing importance on the friendship of the two popes.
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