The most thrilling scenes in “The Two Popes” are the quietest ones, as two learned men of great faith debate the future of their religion.
The most underwhelming scenes in “The Two Popes” are the big-picture crowd scenes and revolution action sequences. These sequences are well-shot and admittedly add context to the main storyline — but every time the film pauses the main action for a subplot from the past, we get restless and count the beats until we return to matters at hand.
With Anthony Hopkins portraying the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (who will become Pope Francis), we have the privilege of seeing two of the world’s finest actors verbally jousting and sinking their chops into the rich albeit sometimes overly fanciful dialogue from screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who specializes in biopics ranging from “The Theory of Everything” to “Darkest Hour” to “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
That should be more than enough to carry the day, and it’s nearly enough for me to recommend “The Two Popes.” But with an overlong running time of 125 minutes and too much time and effort spent on some troubling episodes in Cardinal Bergoglio’s past, “The Two Popes” is the kind of well-made but flawed release you can wait to catch on home video.
Pope Benedict is a hardline traditionalist who believes in staying true to the centuries-old tenets of the Catholic Church. Just because the world is rapidly changing doesn’t mean the church should compromise or bend with the wind. Sin is sin, guilt is guilt, prayer is prayer, forgiveness is forgiveness.
Cardinal Bergoglio is troubled by the immense wealth on display at the Vatican and uneasy with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with ascending to the highest ranks of the church. He is alarmed by the dwindling number of practicing Catholics and believes men should be able to amend rules that were written by men.
There’s a wealth of dramatic material to be mined from these two clashing figures.
The gifted director Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”) does a magnificent job of recreating the 2005 papal conclave following the death of Pope John Paul II, when the widely respected, old-school stalwart Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins, typically brilliant) was elected as head of the church as thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City and millions watched on TV.
Even then, the younger and relatively more liberal Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce, doing equally fine work) was considered a legitimate contender for the papacy — and a threat to traditional Catholic doctrine, at least in the eyes of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict.
Flash forward to 2012. With the Catholic Church reeling from sexual abuse scandals and the pope experiencing health problems and a crisis of faith, he begins laying the groundwork for his departure (which would make him the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years).
Pope Benedict summons the more popular-than-ever Cardinal Bergoglio to the Vatican, to gain a measure of the man’s ideology and inform him he might well be the next pope. Cardinal Bergoglio makes the journey from Argentina with quite another goal in mind.
He wants to resign.
With the production design team (helped by some CGI) faithfully reproducing the grounds of the Vatican and such wonders as the Sistine Chapel, the current and future popes begin parrying — first tentatively, eventually with more passion and forthrightness. They also banter about the World Cup, indulge their mutual passion for classical music, and in one of the more movie-ish scenes in the film, they order out for pizza.
At times these exchanges seem better suited to the stage than the cinema. There’s little doubt much poetic license was invoked in the imagining of the private conversations between the two men. But Hopkins and Pryce are in top form as they play off one another and respectfully air their sometimes major disagreements in interpreting the word of God.
When Cardinal Bergoglio expresses his tremendous guilt over his failure to stand up to Argentina’s oppressive dictatorship, “The Two Popes” digresses to those aforementioned flashback sequences (with Juan Minujin as the young Father Jorge).
And every time that happens, we lose just a little too much momentum.