REVIEW: ‘The Two Popes’ has a pair of great performances, and not much else

“The Two Popes” combines two things that are supposed to be left off the table at family get-togethers: religion and politics. The two subjects are ripe for good acting performances, though, which is what this movie provides.

The movie mostly takes place in early 2013, just before Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) resigned and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) was elected to the position. The film explores how Benedict came to his decision to resign, the first pope to do so since 1415, and his conversations with Jorge, now Pope Francis.

The drama mostly comes from Francis and Benedict being on opposite sides of what direction the church should go. Francis leans more toward a liberal viewpoint, and therefore wants to reform the Catholic Church. Benedict, meanwhile, was pushing a more conservative view, with an agenda to keep church traditions. The two, though, eventually find common ground.

“The Two Popes” is a somewhat unbalanced biographical drama. The film has many jovial moments, with two older, respectful men having thorough discussions about their philosophy. Yet the picture, directed by Fernando Meirelles, offers erratic editing and sudden camera zooms, to a point where the whole thing feels chaotic.

It’s not that the movie’s tone feels inconsistent, but the filmmaking style does create a turbulent atmosphere. As a result, it can tend to conflict with the more calming presence of the two lead characters.

The style can work when a film is taking a more cynical or critical approach, yet “Two Popes” seemed more of a lighter, peaceful affair. In fact it’s so light that the movie doesn’t dig all too deep into the church’s numerous scandals.

Another issue noticeable with the movie is a series of flashbacks set up in the second half that explore Pope Francis’ life when he was a younger priest working in the middle of an armed conflict. Events like these are of course serviceable to a dramatic feature, but when introduced here they come across like they’re from another movie and don’t really fit.

Courtesy Netflix.

At its core, “The Two Popes” is as straightforward as it sounds, and the movie is at its best when it’s just the two interacting about the future of the church and their backgrounds. It’s the moments that stray away from that line, such as those flashbacks, where the film begins to falter.

The best part of “The Two Popes” is that it’s a showcase of brilliant acting, featuring two veterans of the craft. Portraying Pope Francis is Jonathan Pryce, a Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy nominee. Playing Benedict, meanwhile, is Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins.

Hopkins is phenomenal in portraying Benedict. The man has clearly been strained by holding the position, he seems beaten down, and Hopkins very well delivers this.

Pryce is also great in playing his character, who was actually considering resigning at the time and had several reservations about being the Pope. At the same time, though, Francis is shown as an optimist and Pryce does great work presenting this.

“The Two Popes” is an interesting look at two men with several philosophical differences coming together, but the way the film gets there doesn’t do it any favors. It’s a light, enjoyable picture, but not the most substantive. 3 out of 5.


Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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