Monday 9 December 2019

Film: 'The Two Popes'

My recently adopted policy of only attending films which I actively want to see is paying dividends, this being the third consecutive film which I'd rate very highly. 

The subject matter, the current Pope, Francis, and his still-surviving predecessor. Benedict XVI (played by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins respectively), may well put off as many viewers as those it attracts. I wasn't deterred at all, thus seeing what I regard as a superior film which, surprisingly, I found deeply touching in parts. There's already talk of Pryce gaining an Oscar nomination for his role and if so it would be a deserving one, though Hopkins himself shouldn't be too far behind were it not that his performance is slightly the more mannered of this largely two-actors, never dull, film.

The pretext is Benedict's controversial election to the pontificate in 2005 with his acknowledged reputation as being religiously ultra-conservative (and with possible far-right political sympathies?) and his unexplained (at the time) sudden resignation in 2012, which even now remains not fully understood - he being succeeded by a keenly reform-minded Pope, both characters completely at odds as to the direction in which the Church ought to go, or if it needs to be changed at all. 

There may be some eyebrows raised at the fact that the 'elephant in the room',viz. child-abusing clergy and the consequent lack of follow-up (more of a cover-up) as well as a disregard of the many, many victims is, apparently, not a central feature of this story - another "based on fact" one! - though the subject is mentioned quite prominently towards the beginning of the film, and comes out again approaching the conclusion. One review I've seen said the issue is treated as being almost tangential rather than being of central importance. However, I can see and appreciate why it's being treated in this way, one reason being that so little is known of the facts, the Vatican itself being so secretive about the matter, placing its own reputation above that of care for the victims. a policy which, as we still see, has badly and spectacularly misfired. It would have been easy to invent details of abuse to fill in the gap but that would have lowered the whole film to the realm of conjecture, if not fiction itself. If this disturbs one to the extent of dismissing the entire production then so be it, though the final mention of the matter did work satisfactorily for me. 

Most of the 'action' takes place, of course, in Rome, with the two central characters discussing their widely diverging views on the current state of the Church, also sometimes on theology, with some fractious exchanges. In the second half of the film there is an extended sequence (in subtitled Spanish) relating to Francis's past when he tells Benedict of his time both as a youth in Argentina and later as an ordained priest in the 1980s. What I hadn't realised - or, more likely, forgotten - was that he too has a distinctly murky past, in his case having a dubious relationship with the military government of the time when very many thousands of their civilian opponents were 'disappeared', i.e. murdered.    

The portrait of Benedict here, despite his dogmatic rigidity, comes over as warmer and more approachable than the cold fish we've often see him portrayed as, and I'm willing to believe that this may well be near the truth, whereas Francis is quite as forward in his pragmatism, if only to staunch the leaking away of huge numbers of Church members.

The film, contains, of course, several large scale shots showing the full panoply of Papal ceremony, including the two elections, as well as a number of tourist presences.

Brazilian directir Fernando Meireilles (the first-class 'City of God' in 2002 + the good 'The Constant Gardener', 2005) does a really great job here, making superior 'entertainment' out of a subject that could have got bogged down in dryness, but it doesn't. In fact there are more than a few amusing moments. If you're in any way curious about seeing this film I can't recommend it warmly enough. I doubt if you'll be coming out feeling having been let down............7.5.

(IMDb......................7.8 - Rott.Toms...........[critics only] 89%) 


  1. Two of my favorite actors.
    I'm no fan of popes, but this sounds like I need to see it.

    1. If you get to see it, Bob, you could find your verdict is the same as mine - i.e. better, much better, than expected.