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Film Review: The Two Popes

29 November 2019

A pope’s retirement has inspired this new film, says Stephen Brown

Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jonathan Pryce as Popes Benedict and Francis in The Two Popes, on current release

Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jonathan Pryce as Popes Benedict and Francis in The Two Popes, on current release

THE film The Two Popes (Cert. 12A) displays a spiritual temperament that, in Myers-Briggs personality indicator terms, is known as Franciscan. The director, Fernando Meirelles, has a Sensing, Perceiving approach to the way in which the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Anthony Hopkins’s Pope Benedict XVI view life.

Bergoglio kicks off the film preaching that God bade St Francis “Repair my Church” — words summarising his own frustration with an institution broken by abuse scandals, financial corruption, and theological intransigence. He seeks papal consent to his resignation. On meeting, there follows a contest between tradition and progress. What Bergoglio perceives as change, Benedict regards as compromise. One has a view of God as lovingly responding to the contemporary needs of his people.

The Holy Father believes that divine edicts remain steadfast, whatever the spirit of this passing age. Anthony McCarten is an accomplished screenwriter, even if given to flights of fancy, as in his treatment of Halifax and Churchill in Darkest Hour (Arts, 19 January 2018). Nevertheless, this new script likewise sparkles. “What’s that you’re whistling?” asks Benedict (in Latin). Jorge’s reply “’Dancing Queen’. “Abba” is lost on the Pope, who can only think of Jesus’s word for his Father.

Other humour ranges from Eleanor Rigby to smoking and praying. Responding to Jorge’s puzzlement over Benedict’s supposed witticism, the Pope replies “It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny.” It’s one way in which they soon find meeting-points, too quickly to be entirely convincing.

Bergoglio had been a fierce critic of the Vatican but, as one of St Francis’s prayers has it, song and dance is a focus of reconciliation. Benedict enquires about Bergoglio’s weekly tango sessions, which in turn encourages the Pope to display his talents as a classical pianist, before breaking into song with a cabaret number from the Weimar era.

As with John le Carré’s The Constant Gardiner, Meirelles examines what passes for truth, both clerics acknowledging that this may be vital, but, without love, unbearable. Begoglio regrets failing to safeguard fellow Jesuits during the Argentinian military dictatorship. Puzzlingly, these lengthy monochrome flashbacks with 1.37:1 Academy Ratio framing are interspersed with widescreen colour images.

Unfortunately, the younger Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) has darker eyes than Jonathan Pryce. So much for continuity. Only lip readers will be able to discern Benedict’s confession (no flashbacks), as the sound is removed. But why stop short of speculation? It hasn’t bothered McCarten in the past. Benedict’s greatest agony is no longer feeling God’s presence . . . until his encounter with Bergoglio restores it. The latter’s ability to live life abundantly puts new heart into the ageing Pontiff. Each upholds the other.

By the end, they are two old pals drinking beer and watching (aptly) the Argentina v. Germany World Cup Final. These men of God are no longer in competition with each other. The new Pope Francis will strive with Benedict’s unreserved blessing to repair God’s Church, “which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”.

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