London Film Festival 2019 – The Two Popes

Writer:  Anthony McCarten

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Jonathan Pryce has rather cornered the market in famous Argentinians, where he was once Juan Peron to Madonna’s Evita, now he’s playing the most powerful man in religion, the Pope in Fernando Meirelles’ new film The Two Popes. Written by Anthony McCarten based on his own play from 2017, the movie examines an extraordinary moment in modern Christianity as a serving Pope renounced the title and two living Popes stood side-by-side.

Elected as Pope by the Conclave in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger takes the name of Benedict XVI comfortably beating rivals including the South American rising star Cardinal Bergoglio who returns to Argentina to continue his work with the poor. In 2013, eager to retire Bergoglio makes the trip to Rome to ask His Holiness to permit him to leave the church, but as public scandal engulfs the Papacy, Pope Benedict has other plans for his guest.

At the UK premiere of The Two Popes Meirelles explained that the film is a conversation between conservative and more progressive thinking within the Catholic church using the extraordinary changing of the guard as an opportunity to examine these two approaches. In reality the film takes Bergoglio’s perspective entirely, fleshing out his views with considerable biography including incidents in Argentinian history that he feels he must repent for.

By contrast, Ratzinger’s own history and management of the Papacy for the eight years of his reign are largely overlooked except in passing reference to accusations of corruption and an early association with Nazism that is never qualified. Even a final confessional scene to his colleague is strangely drowned out. Instead the film gets a little lost in flashbacks depicted in stylised black and white as well as inserted documentary and news footage from the elections that are there to up the political drama but more often distract from the intensity of the two fine actors playing successive Popes.

You feel that McCarten and Meirelles are afraid their movie might be too stagey if they just let Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce talk to each other for 90-minutes but that is exactly what this film needed to be and in the end it’s a real shame these two acting greats aren’t just left to get on with it. Hopkins cuts a weakened and harassed figure as Pope Benedict, a man initially suspicious of his rival but understanding the need for someone else to pick up the baton and push for change in the church.

Pryce is equally good as a reluctant champion of the Catholic church, seeking a more austere and humbler lifestyle, looking to do real good but troubled by his own feelings of unworthiness and guilt for a past action. If only the creators had been braver, not just in allowing these two mighty performers have the floor to themselves but also to give the audience both perspectives with greater clarity in order to understand the shift that the now Pope Francis has instituted.

The stark and unflattering bright white lighting that dominates a lot of the interiors looks less holy and more like a strip lit supermarket, but the beautiful artwork of the various chapels and public areas is lovely and the Vatican election scenes are exciting, a rare insight into the fraught process. The Two Popes really comes to life when Hopkins and Pryce fire at one another but the film results in indecisive black smoke and a missed opportunity to say much more about the future of the Papacy.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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