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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce power this papal bromance

The Two Popes is a semi-fictionalised account of how the current Pope Francis ended up taking the papal reins from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013

By Priyanka Roy in Calcutta
  • Published 22.12.19, 7:44 PM
  • Updated 22.12.19, 7:48 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes (Netflix)

On the surface, The Two Popes functions almost like a buddy movie. Except that the friendship is, of course, between two Popes. But despite its sombre — and often intimidating — subject and setting, director Fernando Meirelles manages to craft a film that scores as a Pontiff bromance. Now, that’s a first.

The Two Popes is a semi-fictionalised account of how the current Pope Francis ended up taking the papal reins from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. But more importantly, it tells the tale — mostly imaginary, but stitched together expertly by Meirelles, aided by a taut script penned by Anthony McCarten — of the unlikely friendship that developed between the two over the course of a few meetings, with the more affable Francis carefully chipping away at the uptight Benedict’s tetchy demeanour to strike up a comradeship. A bond that grew over raucously screaming at football matches, conversing about Abba and The Beatles and sharing slices of pizza.

The Two Popes starts off intriguingly, with scenes familiar to those who follow the papal succession playing out on TV. The present segues seamlessly to the past, more specifically 2005, when the death of Pope John

Paul II led to a nail-biting few days of the cardinals getting ready to vote for the new Pontiff.

What follows is a series of scenes, filmed almost like a documentary, of the cardinals hunched over, votes being cast, followers waiting outside with bated breath to witness a decision being made in the form of black or white smoke wafting out of the Vatican chimney…. In a closely contested battle, it’s the German cardinal, Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) who gets elected as Pope Benedict, stealing a march over the Argentinian radical reformist Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). The two are not on the best terms, the cursory handshake at the end of the vote-off speaking volumes about the strained relationship between them.

But things change in the next few years, with the dramatic core of The Two Popes resting on a meeting between the two men, initiated by Benedict, at the papal country house in the Italian countryside. Bergoglio has been hoping to retire and he wants to break it to Pope Benedict. Benedict, plagued by aspersions of financial corruption and incompetence in dealing with prickly issues plaguing the Church, is looking for a successor. Though their views and temperaments are very different, Benedict thinks Bergoglio — aka Pope Francis — is the right man for the job.

Conversations — real and imagined — are the driving force of the narrative of The Two Popes. Despite the verbosity — there’s plenty of talk and walk, walk and talk… garden to chapel, living room to dining table — Meireless scores in keeping things brisk and busy, winning over the viewer with the gradual thawing of the relationship between the two men. In the process, the Brazilian filmmaker manages to come up with an immensely watchable film, with a lot of the credit going to the screenplay penned by ‘biopic man’ McCarten — The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody and now The Two Popes… this man’s on a roll.

But this is essentially a no-ruffling-of-feathers outing. A reference to sexual abuse within the Church is made in passing but not carried through and Francis’s dodgy alignment with Argentinian military dictatorship in the 1970s is depicted sketchily. Meirelles’s primary focus is on humanising the papacy and he succeeds gloriously. His long-time collaborator Cesar Charlone — they worked together on Meirelles’s seminal City of God, besides a few others — shoots the film lucidly and lovingly, with the recreation of the Sistine Chapel — built on a set at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios — guaranteed to make your jaw drop.

Unsurprisingly, what makes The Two Popes the film it is are its central performances. Hopkins and Pryce are in supreme form. While Pryce turns in the more assured act, Hopkins makes you chuckle with the quirks he lends to Benedict. The man has a penchant for Austrian cop-dog series Kommissar Rex and can’t go through a meal without a bottle of Fanta, all of which lend the film its humane and humorous touches.

Hopkins plays Benedict with a gruff exterior, but with a perpetual twinkle in the eye, with Pryce serving as the perfect foil. Together they are movie magic… whether it’s ordering in pizza and biting into the slices with glee or stealing a precious moment to break into a tango together. Papal bromance, did we say?