Netflix has been on a role in 2019 with no less than four pictures nominated for the Best Picture categories at the Golden Globes and one of those films they waited until the very last minute in 2019 to release, “The Two Popes”. Based on Anthony McCarten’s 2017 play “The Pope” (McCarten also wrote the screenplay) “The Two Popes” is a biographical drama that explores the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and his eventual successor Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce, as Benedict prepares to forfeit the papacy following the Vatican leaks scandal. There’s a lot of reasons why this film had potential. For one it focuses on both one of the most controversial and one of the most popular picks for Pope in recent history as well as two men whose ideals were on opposite ends of the spectrum. This made it a seemingly timely narrative for today’s divided culture that looked to be an examination of ideals and cooperation in the face of differences The question is though, how well does it all play out on the big screen? Let’s find out. This is my review of “The Two Popes”.
The coolest part of this movie is that it does kind of play out like a two man play with Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins turning in astounding renditions of Pope’s Francis and Benedict XVI respectively. Both have earned Globe nominations for their roles and they’re very much deserved seeing as the two men commit to embodying the personalities, looks and mannerisms of their specific subjects. The bulk of the movie revolves around these two men talking to each other like human beings and, like the greats they are, Pryce and Hopkins present fantastic banter and chemistry as they share their often clashing thoughts on life and religion for two hours. These aren’t just two professionals taking on important roles. They do more than perform, they lose themselves in their respective characters and speak to each other like old friends and human beings perfectly selling the dynamic and growing relationship between these two icons of modern Christianity. The whole film is on the shoulders of these two men and they do a fantastic job selling every second of their conversations and keeping you engrossed in what they’ll talk about next.
Considering the two subjects this movie focuses on there was a lot of potential for it to open the eyes of viewers to the need for those with different ideals to find some common ground while also providing commentary on the state of religion in the world. Unfortunately, for me at least, it only really succeeds in accomplishing one of these goals. In terms of its commentary on religion “The Two Popes” mostly sticks the landing by exploring how these two men view faith and forgiveness. The movie takes a little bit of time to explore their own individual flaws and how their differences in ideals are simultaneously understandable and hypocritical. Both men often contradict each other and sometimes themselves. A fascinating moment comes when Benedict tells Francis that he plans to step down, but Francis sees this as breaking tradition. Yet Francis had previously talked about breaking tradition for the sake of survival of the faith, a fact Benedict is quick to point out. Benedict in turn is set in his ways early in the movie but finds himself more open to change late in the film. In a lot of ways this struggle of religious ideals captures the state of many believers in today’s world, those who want to do what they perceive as right but may have a hard time doing so because it challenges the traditional beliefs associated with their faith. Several times throughout the film both Popes address the compromises the faith has made over the years and question why believers can’t or should compromise today. These are challenging questions and revelations, especially considering how much the religion has evolved and changes over the centuries, and ones that can and should cause viewers to reexamine whether or not their dedication to their faith is too close minded.
One of the biggest themes in this movie is the idea of two men of different ideals finding common ground and the biggest flaw of this film is found when you examine this idea on a larger scale. When I viewed “The Two Popes” I thought it was a powerful expression of open-mindedness in the faith-based community and presented some messages that I very much agreed with. But sitting down and thinking about it I concluded that the debate felt a bit one-sided. The two popes do each learn lessons about their own hypocrisy and their need to broaden their understanding of humanity, but when you apply this to the larger social message of the movie, which is the idea of conservatives and liberals being more civil and understanding in their conversations, only the more liberal side, represented by Pope Francis, gets to be right. Francis’ argument is presented as the more righteous one while Benedict doesn’t really get much of an argument at all in favor of his values. Fracis gets most of the character development with his backstory of regret and failures explored through flashbacks while we really don’t get to learn much of anything about Benedict’s life history other than brief notes about his failure to protect those abused by the church. In the end the message feels clear, conservatives have to open their mind to the liberal way of thinking if they want to survive and that’s an ideal that goes against the whole idea of compromise. The movie points us in one specific direction when it had the potential to show us there is no clear path to righteousness in any debate, religious or otherwise.
That really is my biggest problem with the movie. I loved it in a lot of ways, but I really would have liked to see more about Benedict. What roadblocks did he have to come to peace with besides the Vatican Papers? Who was he as a person before his papacy? His past as a member of the Hitler Youth is only barely touched on by a passing insult from a man on a news report. How did he overcome that or did he? Instead we only see him stressing over guilt of the inaction of the Church to protect those victimized by priests and then settle into the fact that his conservative ways are behind the times. We barely learn anything about Pope Benedict as a person compared to the development of Pope Francis which prevents us from knowing the other half of the story. This film is more a biopic about the rise of Pope Francis than it is an exploration of the need for common ground. It’s sad because it is a solid movie. It’s well made, extremely well-acted, the dialogue is excellent, the pacing is great. Pretty much everything about this movie is Grade A material except for its lack of depth in exploring its most important theme. This was the perfect opportunity to properly explore the division of ideals that litters our society today by using two men from the most dominant religion in the world as the showcase of how to properly coexist and even befriend those you may not see eye to eye with. Instead we only really get one side of the story and that, to me, undermines the entire point of showcasing these debates in the first place.
While there’s a lot that “The Two Popes” does right it doesn’t do nearly enough to capitalize on its most important opportunity. It can’t be ignored that this is a great overall product with amazing acting by its leads, well written and engaging dialogue, excellent pacing and an all-around awesome feel about it. It’s just not the properly balanced debate it needed to be to drive home that important message about coexistence that could have made this one of today’s most important films. Regardless of my own personal feelings towards one side or the other it’s hard to overlook that a film meant to bridge the gaps of ideals in today’s world has a bridge only really goes one way. I still recommend it and I understand why it’s being hailed as one of the year’s must-see movies. I’ll probably watch it again myself and maybe that will give me some new perspective. But for now I have to judge it for what it is, a great movie with a narrative that feels imbalanced and had the potential to be so much more.