' ' Cinema Romantico: The Two Popes

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Two Popes

“The Two Popes” begins in 2005, just after Pope John Paul II has died, and the various Cardinals have been called to Vatican City to help elect a new Bishop of Rome. This includes Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as well as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), among many others, and as they convene and go about their duties, director Fernando Meirelles alternates between staged footage of the papal conclave and real footage culled from newscasts, of talking heads and people waiting in the streets for the white smoke to emerge. Meirelles trips it up with constant quick zooms recounted in quivery handheld camera when he is in the Cardinals’ presence, eliciting the sensation of a docudrama looking over the conclave’s shoulder. This prologue, however, which ends, of course, with the traditionalist Joseph Ratzinger being elected Pope eventually gives way to a second conclave, one in which that Pope resigns to clear way for Bergolio. What happens in-between is where the movie takes its name, a dueling conversation between the Two Popes, aspiring, if unsuccessfully, to be “My Dinner with Andre” at Vatican City. And if “The Two Popes” begins by trying to look and feel like a documentary, Meirelles initially keeps up the ruse with more quick zooms before mostly abandoning that aesthetic, slipping into the cozy realm of fantasy in more ways than one.

Anthony McCarten wrote the script, basing it off his play, and he works hard to paint these powerful men as regular fellas, showing them watching soccer together and breaking bread by way of having pizza, chowing down in the Sistine Chapel, of all places. That scene ends with Pope Benedict briefly walking among the selfie-snapping tourists, a scene that recalls the one in “Darkest Hour” where McCarten repurposed a Churchill subway ride as a Sports Movie moment, which apparently his modus operandi. In “The Two Popes”, at least, the men meeting beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling evinces the idea of this as a spontaneous, two-man papal conclave, as their running conversation proves a job interview as philosophical bandy. Alas, if this is meant to be about “finding the middle ground”, as McCarten has purported in interviews, it’s hard not to notice how, in its broad way, their dialogue is less a true exchange of opposing ideas and considering what they mean in contrast to each other – nay, not an exchange of ideas at all – than a fulfillment of the end we already know is coming, frustratingly and overly intent on showing Ratzinger as Bad Pope and Bergolio as Good Pope.

Partially left without a choice, Hopkins plays to this idea, his walking cane becoming a virtual emblem of being a stick in the mud, more believable as an out of touch elder whose favorite TV show is “Kommissar Rex” than the kind of theological heavyweight that would have ascended to this position in the first place, as much a failing of the script. Pryce, on the other hand, has a lightness of being that feels worn in, a decent man in the ongoing process of atonement, playing the part connected to 1970s flashbacks in which the young future Pope (played by Juan Minujin) is accused of collaborating with the emergent military junta, scenes in which we see him wrestling with micro v macro morals.

These flashbacks, though, in complicating Bergolio’s character, strangely, fatally gloss right over the current Catholic church’s predominant sin, the sexual abuse scandal. It is referenced, yes, but not really discussed, certainly not redressed, merely grafted onto the issue of overall reform, making it come across as nothing more than a piece of an evolving institutional puzzle, which is, frankly speaking, an abomination. What’s even worse, by making Bergolio’s flashbacks so prominent and running parallel to their conversation, the flashbacks become not a juxtaposition but something like a smokescreen, inadvertently equating one with the other, as if sexual abuse is an ethical quagmire and not plain wicked. And so the epilogue, of sorts, in which The Two Popes watch some futbol feels less cute than disingenuous, like a sportscaster blithely acknowledging an organization’s egregious deeds and then imploring the need to just move on. 

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