Review: Hopkins, Pryce are divine odd couple in ‘Two Popes’

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As a Catholic, I’ve always had a fascination with what life is like for Popes. I mean, do they sit around praying to God all day?

What Papal attire do they wear when  you know… not “poping?” Are they just like everyone else – sitting in front of the TV after the day is done? Do they play Xbox? Make TikTok videos?

I’ve always wanted to know.

Now, Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles has given me an imaginative and masterful peek behind the Vatican’s red curtains in Netflix’s smart, funny and charming film, The Two Popes.

After recently viewing the film at AFI Fest 2019 Presented by Audi,  this is one of Meirelles’s best. And face it, he has his share of best films, including City of God and The Constant Gardner.

The film, written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything), is the ultimate Odd Couple set up. Given the unexpected musical choices Meirelles makes during the film, I almost expected to hear some sort of choral rendition of the classic Odd Couple theme.

The film begins in 2005 after the death of Pope John II. Cardinals have gathered at the Vatican to elect a new pope. It’s here, in a men’s room scene, that we have the first (of many) awkward encounters, between German-born Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Jonathan Pryce’s Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

While the two men wash their hands, Bergoglio hums. Ratzinger, a traditional and conservative man of faith, assumes its a hymn.

It’s not.

Bergoglio confesses that it’s an ABBA song – Dancing Queen. We’re then treated to the cardinals entering the Papal conclave to the same song.

It’s a funny exchange, but a critical one, as it sets up the distinctions between Ratzinger’s conservative views and Bergoglio’s much more liberal one. The debate between this theological Felix and Oscar is on.

Ratzinger is eventually elected Pope and becomes Benedict XVI.

Frustrated with the conservative direction Benedict wants to take the church – basically leaving it the status quo and ignore the flocks leaving the religion – Bergoglio decides to retire in 2012 and asks for permission from Benedict, who ignores them.

After enduring nearly a decade of sexual abuse scandals, Benedict finally summons his Cardinal, who has become his harshest critic (and future successor) to Rome in order to reveal a secret that could shake the foundations of the Catholic Church.

Behind Vatican walls, a harsh, insightful and often funny debate ensues between both tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront their pasts in order to find common ground. Oh, and try to forge a new path for the church’s one billion plus followers.  Watch the trailer below:

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As Benedict and Bergoglio’s differences become more apparent, we see how difficult it is to lead the church down a new path.

But what eventually gets them there is a love of church and god. As the two men discuss their views of the roles of the papacy and everything it represents, the Church is slowly transformed.

This transfer of power from Pope Benedict to Francis immediately and viscerally changes the course of the world’s most powerful religious body.

Much of The Two Popes is simply a delightful conversation between these two men, peppered with great one-liners throughout.

When they are flying back to Rome in a helicopter, Bergoglio savors a gift of oregano from a gardener and Benedict observingly says, “You’re popular.” Bergoglio replies, “I’m just trying to be myself,” causing Benedict to quip, “Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much.”

While taking place between 2005 and 2013, The Two Popes couldn’t be more current. Its debate, which is sometimes bitter and frustrating, is about how we Catholics, and non, view the state of the church and our own lives within it.

It’s the constant conflict we see between conservative and liberal pundits on cable news networks.

Bergoglio is a man of the people. Pope Benedict is a man of the church. There’s a huge difference. The film also serves as a confession of sorts as to how little the church did to protect children from predatory priests.

Though it takes work, The Two Popes eventually reach a common ground, while developing a deep friendship and admiration.

Increasingly unwelcome flashbacks of Bergoglio’s life, from when he enters the seminary to when he confronts and works with the Argentinian dictatorship, slow down and unbalance the film. We get to see how his point-of-view developed.

Although Benedict is referred to as a Nazi, we really don’t learn much about his past.

Besides McCarten’s, (whom I actually had the joy of grabbing a drink with at LA pub, The Pikey) witty script, what makes the Two Popes so enjoyable are the performances of its two veteran actors. It’s like a master class as we watch Hopkins and Pryce (whom has never been nominated for an Oscar) play off of each other. They delve deep into the men they are portraying.

Pryce deserves that nom. Hopkins is Hopkins.

The Two Popes successfully takes a pair of ideologies and makes them entertaining and fascinating. That can be attributed to a combination of the script, fantastic direction and an engaging rapport between its two stars. Where it could have been preachy, the film instead engages us by surprise to become something inspirational.

Peering inside this cloistered world, Meirelles has masterfully pulls back the curtain on a rarefied world and given me the peek that I always desired.

This is a film about bonding. A true love story in every sense of the word. About one man who drinks wine and the other who drinks Fanta.

We are blessed to have this film in our lives. The Two Popes will have a limited theatrical run beginning November 27.

4 Ball Point Pens out of 5. So says The Geek.

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