Helen Tope reviews The Two Popes, showing in our cinema until Wednesday 15 January.
In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. An act not without precedence, but the first Pope to resign since the fifteenth century, Benedict’s decision created headlines around the world.
The film starts as the selection process begins – an archaic mix of ritual and smoke. The Catholic Church is losing congregation numbers, and numbers yield influence. There are whisperings about the church moving forward – a progressive, more welcoming institution. A new approach – and a new man – is what’s needed.
The Two Popes – directed by Fernando Meirelles – then takes us back a year to 2012. Pope Benedict is still in power, but not enjoying the role anymore. Privately, Benedict confesses he no longer hears the voice of God. In terms of occupational hazard, it’s problematic to say the least.
Arriving at the Pope’s summer residency, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has flown in from Buenos Aires to seek permission to retire. A bold, progressive member of the Church, Bergoglio is the polar opposite to Benedict’s conservatism. Bergoglio bears none of the airs and graces of his station – he takes the bus, buys pizza from a street stall and cheers on his beloved San Lorenzo football team. Approachable and well-liked, Bergoglio, despite his best efforts, sees the Church becoming increasingly irrelevant.
On paper, the two men could not appear more different. Benedict – aloof, quiet and deeply aligned with church doctrine. Bergoglio – younger, vibrant and eager for change. Meeting Pope Benedict, Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) tries to persuade him to accept his resignation. As the meeting unfolds, it emerges that Bergoglio is not the only one considering his next move.
Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) tells Bergoglio that he no longer has the ear of God. It is time, he believes, to step down. Bergoglio is horrified – the Papacy is a role with plenty of perks but no pension plan. It is a job for life, and all that entails. It would mean breaking a line of rule nearly 600 years old.
Benedict was a controversial hire too, when selected for the Papacy in 2005. Born Joseph Ratzinger, he was conscripted into Hitler Youth on his 14th birthday (membership was required by law) – but Ratzinger was apparently an unenthusiastic member and refused to attend meetings. Despite his heady ascent within the church, Pope Benedict’s past followed him every step of the way.
Bergoglio realises that he has been summoned to hear confession. Benedict – played with real delicacy by Hopkins – reveals a vulnerability beneath a frosty exterior. A man of simple tastes – a bottle of Fanta and a detective show are his favourite ways to unwind – Benedict whispers to Bergoglio secrets from the depths of the Church. Told behind closed doors, Meirelles leaves it to us to piece together what has been said.
Still refusing Bergoglio’s resignation letter, the Pope continues to meet with the Cardinal. It becomes clear that the younger man is being primed, ready for the top job. Bergoglio is the obvious choice if the Papacy is to move forward, but Bergoglio is not a man of ambition. As he admits to Pope Benedict, he is pursued by his own sins.
Following a right-wing coup in 1976, the political landscape of Bergoglio’s Argentina changed overnight. Attempting to placate the self-appointed military leaders, Bergoglio underestimated their willingness to brutalise anyone opposed to the new regime. It was a gross error in judgement.
Meirelles doesn’t shy away from the reality of Bergoglio’s mistakes. Despite his everyman persona, Bergoglio becomes a much more complicated figure. The almost-saintly way we see him move through the streets of Buenos Aires – a familiar face, a comforting smile – is upended to reveal a portrait of a man trying to make amends.
The Two Popes is more than just a character study – and it excels at that. Meirelles profoundly challenges the idea that a man’s character is hammered into position – never moving, never shifting. In this film, a man can be a contradiction in terms and still be worthy of our respect. At a time where we are encouraged to make snap judgements, The Two Popes asks us to watch and consider. What would we have done? The same?
Looking at the men behind the ‘carnival’ (as Bergoglio calls it), the papacy is taken off its pedestal. As both men consider a life beyond the church, Meirelles shows us a little of their ordinariness. The Cardinal’s love of football, the Pope’s appreciation of music – a means of self-expression for a quiet, studious boy. As Hopkins’ performance – detailed and beautifully nuanced – asks us to look a little more kindly on Pope Benedict, Pryce goes bigger. Bergoglio’s earnest desire to do better, to be better, fills the screen. As he confesses his sins to Pope Benedict, the challenge to Bergoglio is whether he can forgive himself.
Voted overwhelmingly as Benedict’s successor, Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013. Reaching out to a secular world, his philosophy – be humble, be visible – is already reshaping the way the Catholic Church is being perceived.
A master-class of layer and detail, this morality play doesn’t take the easy route. As a double act, Hopkins and Pryce are infallible, with Meirelles stepping back and allowing the pair to shine (watch the credits for a gloriously entertaining coda). The Two Popes is guilty of self-editing; not delving too much into Pope Benedict’s past, for example. But what is left is a fascinating story of how power transitions. A story, with a flaw at the centre of it, seems entirely appropriate.