LFF 2019 ‘The Two Popes’ Review: Fathers in Arms

Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Archbishop Francis Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) both wish to retire. They each have ambitions to return to their flocks and reconnect with their faith. The two men could not be any more different in terms of their beliefs and lifestyles. Benedict is the German authoritative face of the old church. Francis is the Argentinian liberal voice of the new church. Together they must decide their futures and the future of the church.

Director Fernando Meirelles employs many directorial flourishes, some of which distract from the drama unfolding on screen. Greengrass style shaky cam and unmotivated zooms aim for a documentary feel but frequently and unfortunately recall how . It feels like an attempt to jazz up what threatens to be a very dry film of two old men talking to each other. But he needn’t have worried.

The fireworks here are the script by Anthony Mcarten and the enthralling performances by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. The nuances and mannerisms further emphasise that these are two very different but very believable men. There’s something entirely scintillating about seeing the two figures talking openly with each other about the failings of the church and sensitive topics like the child abuse scandals, homophobia and poverty. They even talk about their faith and fears.

The charm and sweetness may seem superficial considering the severity of the issues facing the church, but there is humanity here between these two old men. Regrets and doubts are spoken of in great detail and explored in sumptuous flashbacks to Argentina of the 50s and the darkness of the 70s. The film goes to great lengths to demonstrate the context of this crisis of identity.

Humanising Pope Benedict is a controversial endeavour. He is to many “the Nazi pope”. His positions on same sex marriage, contraceptives and other Faiths isolated many from the church. The film demonstrates understanding of this and perhaps fancifully but undeniably powerfully has gin recognise the shortcomings of his beliefs. The film suggests that Benedict knew the world needed a pope who could begin the difficult journey towards modernisation. Hopkins ingeniously plays Benedict with a hard, abbrasive, stubborn edge but there’s a well of regret and hope behind the grit.

When the film demonstrates full faith in its strongest assets it’s a work of profound beauty. A dialogue across a chasm of ideological difference. It’s a very timely message of finding shared humanity and sympathy. It’s also deeply funny and surprisingly profound.

Four Stars

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