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Non-Review Review: The Two Popes

Very few movie disintegrate so completely and thoroughly across their runtime as The Two Popes.

The Two Popes feels like two different movies, both tonally opposed to one another and both bleeding relentlessly into one another. The first is a delightfully surreal Odd Couple riff (The Odd Pope-le? Vicious in the Vatican?) that finds two men who would be pope forced to interact with one another, their mutual unease inevitably transforming to a gentle understanding and even compassion. The second is a more earnest historical biography, a film that aims to properly contextualise the life and times of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would be Pope Francis.

The robe less travelled.

Both of these premises are workable on their own. Of course, the first premise has a bit of an advantage in that “throw two great British actors into scenes together” tends to result in highly watchable material, and “… also, they’re both popes” is a pretty impressive chaser to that. In contrast, the historical biography section of the film is a bit more generic and familiar, even if there’s potential here. After all, this ground has been explored in films as compelling as The Secrets in Their Eyes.

The problem is that the two films don’t mix, at all. Every attempt to combine them hurts the film as a whole, both stopping the narrative dead and representing a jarring transition from one type of film into another and back again. It isn’t that The Two Popes allows these stories to collide, it instead tries to run them in parallel. The result is a narrative traffic jam, and a film in which each half hour is appreciably weaker than the one leading into it.

Good faith arguments.

There is a lot to like in The Two Popes. The premise itself is compelling. After all, Pope Benedict was first pope to resign in seven hundred years, surrendering the papacy at a time when the Catholic Church was trapped in a spiritual crisis. Not only was Benedict’s resignation of interest, he was also replaced by a figure who was aligned oppositionally to him. “They say that every pop is God’s correction for the last one,” Benedict muses at one point in the film. “I should very much like to see my correction.” So there’s a pretty neat narrative hook there.

There are any number of obvious contrasts between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, at least in terms of accepted narratives. Pope Benedict was staunchly conservative and old-fashioned. His character-defining moment comes early in The Two Popes, during some casual gladhanding, in which he idly muses, “Everything was easier when everybody spoke Latin.” In contrast, Pope Francis was a reformer who believed that the Catholic Church needed to live in the world, rather than apart from it. His character-defining moment comes just as early, whistling Dancing Queen to himself in the bathroom.

Tea time.

Naturally, these are two very different characters, and so there’s something interesting in seeing them thrown together. In one of the film’s smaller and shrewder insights, The Two Popes even seems to argue that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis represent the paradox of Pope John Paul II. After all, Pope John Paul II was largely seen as a kind and compassionate figure like Pope Francis, but the actual policies of his papacy were closer to the conservatism of Pope Francis.

The Two Popes gets considerable mileage out of juxtaposing its two leads. Pope Benedict likes playing the piano, boasting about his album, and watching an Austrian television series about a crime-solving canine. (“The trouble he gets himself into,” Benedict laughs.) Pope Francis likes football, talking to the house staff, and telling jokes that his colleague struggles to appreciate. Late in the movie, when Benedict tries to tell his own joke, he insists, “It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny.”

A world without pope.

However, there’s a compelling ideological contrast between the two men and their positions. When Benedict points out that Francis was much more conservative in his youth, he reflects, “You compromised.” Francis responds, “I changed. They are not the same thing.” There’s something interesting in how differently the two men approach the same ideas, from the role of the Catholic Church to their relationship to God. Over the course of the film, the two characters find themselves drawn closer and closer together, despite their initial mistrust and anxiety.

The casting helps. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are among the best actors working, and the decision to build a two-hander around their performances pays dividends. On paper, The Two Popes might seem too cute. To be fair, there are times in the opening stretch where the film walks right up to the line; it’s hard to decide whether Bryce Dessner’s pseudo-religious choral riff on Dancing Queen is too much or just enough for what the film is doing. However, Hopkins and Pryce keep the film grounded, and the scenes they share are a delight.

Leaning into it.

Unfortunately, The Two Popes doesn’t seem to trust its leading men. There is probably a great eighty-minute movie in here, but writer Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles insist on stretching the premise to two hours. In order to do this, The Two Popes features a number of extended flashbacks to Pope Francis’ history in Argentina, in particular his relationship with the military junta that took control of the country during the mid-seventies.

To be fair, this material is important. These events shaped and defined Francis, and so any attempt to account for his history without acknowledging the moral complexity and ambiguity of that national trauma would be shallow and superficial. However, The Two Popes approaches the material in the most straightforward and most awkward manner imaginable, halting the interactions between Benedict and Francis for several extended flashbacks to Francis’ youth, in which the role is played by Argentinian actor Juan Minujín.

Dratz.

These sequences feel grafted in from another film, a much more conventional slice of awards fare. The playfulness and lightness of the odd couple dynamic is replaced with a deadly earnestness that grinds the film to a halt. These sequences play out both as actual dramatic scenes and as montages with voice-over. There is something very strange about all of this, as if McCarten and Meirelles knew that they wanted (or needed) to include this material, but could not figure out how.

A not-insignificant amount of these sequences feature Benedict telling Francis things that he already knows, often beginning clumsy expositional statements with lines like, “it says in your file…” It’s the worst sort of cinematic exposition, with one character effectively stating “as you already know…” to another for the benefit of the audience. It doesn’t help that the dramatic weight of these sequences is a sharp left-turn from the bantering dynamic of the story around them, making it jarring when the film tries to slip from one mode to another.

They havent a prayer.

More than that, the decision to focus so heavily on Francis’ past imbalances the movie. There are times at which The Two Popes feels almost propagandist, a narrative companion piece to the documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The film devotes far too much time to a whirlwind youth romance and Francis’ encounter with the faith, while denying any similar insight or agency to Benedict. The more questionable aspects of Benedict’s past are broached, but never explored. Indeed, Francis openly scoffs when he encounters a civilian who alludes to Benedict’s storied history.

Indeed, as The Two Popes goes on, it is drawn in increasingly broad terms. What were once clever metaphors for the characters’ journeys become the subject of extended monologues. Trying to watch television in the Vatican, Benedict muses, “Sometimes the signal is not so good.” It is a wry acknowledgement of the challenges that the Catholic Church faces in trying to discern the will of a divine who is so far removed from them. However, in case the audience doesn’t get the symbolism, Frances delivers a literal sermon on the point about an hour later.

Father from the point.

Similarly, while undoubtedly well-intentioned and arguably necessary, Meirelles repeatedly eschews subtlety in trying to make his points about the modern world. When Francis argues that the boundaries that Benedict has set might become dividing walls, the film cuts to the construction of border walls. As Francis delivers his iconic “when no one is to blame, everyone is to blame” speech, the film includes a montage of refugees and asylum seekers. This is all very earnest and sincere, but it often feels too abstract. It isn’t grounded in the way the Church has historically failed these communities.

The Two Popes deteriorates dramatically the longer it runs, squandering a lot of the good will established in its charming opening half-hour as it clumsily strives for importance and prestige. The Two Popes is at its best when it is truest to its title, featuring two unlikely and contrasting figures played by two incredibly talented British characters coming to a gradual and grudging understanding of one another.

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