Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce Warmly Embody a Clash of Values in ‘The Two Popes’

Two men of high regard wander the halls of an ancient institution and become symbols for an ongoing clash between tradition and slow steps towards progress. That is the intriguing premise of Netflix’s pleasantly enjoyable “The Two Popes.” It takes on the role of voyeur almost, peeking over the shoulders of Joseph Ratzinger a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI and Jorge Mario Bergoglio a.k.a. Pope Francis as they debate faith, its essence and wider views about society itself. It becomes more than just two men of age chatting, because Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce bring a special gravitas to their roles.

In 2005 Pope John Paul II passes away and the Vatican convenes to elect a new head of the Catholic Church. Arriving to Rome for the proceedings are the very conservative German Ratzinger (Hopkins) and the progressive Argentinian Bergoglio (Pryce). Both maneuver in different circles, one in those who seek to preserve the church’s iron rules and the other amongst those seeking reform. Ratzinger is elected the new pontiff and becomes Benedict XVI. Fast forward to 2012 and Bergoglio wishes to resign as cardinal after years of preaching for social justice and focusing on the poor of Buenos Aires. When he arrives in Rome to have Benedict sign the necessary paperwork the Pope is surprisingly hesitant and instead begins a standoff over Bergoglio’s stances regarding the need for the church to open up, put aside more rigid forms of traditionalism and get back in touch with the common people. Into the theological debate soccer, piano and even Fanta make an appearance.

“The Two Popes” is a surprising offering from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, best known for intense and feverish films like “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener.” His versatility is on display in how quietly absorbing this film can be. It never lumbers, but has its own unique energy and a rich sense of detail. Meirelles ventures into the halls of the Vatican and meticulously opens the narrative by capturing the political maneuvering and voting process swirling around the selection of a pope. The screenplay is by Anthony McCarten, who has penned numerous fact-based movies like “Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything” and even “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He has a good ear for crafting informative but precise dialogue. There’s never a “religious” feel to the narrative, it’s more about how individuals operate within a very old institution. Amid rooms with Italian and Latin filling the air cardinals gossip and try to form voting alliances. There’s uncertainty everywhere because of the enveloping scandals about sexual abuse involving numerous church figures. 

Yet this isn’t a treatise on the church’s recent problems. When Bergoglio visits Benedict in the summer of 2012 “The Two Popes” really becomes about two specific kinds of men. Although their discussions are within the context of a religious institution, much of it sounds like the basic clash of worldviews in any society. Meirelles gives it all an almost ancient or classical tone as Hopkins and Pryce wander through lush papal gardens and vast, elegant cathedrals brimming with Renaissance art. There are also moments of comfortable, friendly intimacy as when Benedict visits Bergoglio’s room and the two begin discussing music, Benedict plays old cabaret tunes from 1920s Germany on a piano, while the Argentine is startled that the Pope knows next to nothing about The Beatles. Their discussions go from friendly to sudden tension when Bergoglio challenges Benedict on the need to loosen restrictive stances on marriage, sexuality and the need to address inequality. Benedict doesn’t come across as a malevolent figure, but more like a true believer in a certain way of doing things. He is rigid, not necessarily mean, devoted to a stance without wavering. Meirelles uses lovely visual queues and edits to emphasize the difference between the two men. At dinner they both reach for a drink in their separate quarters, Bergoglio grabs a bottle of wine while Benedict pours himself some Fanta.

There is an endearing spirit in the way “The Two Popes” humanizes these two religious personalities as well. Yes Bergoglio will eventually become the more liberal Pope Francis in 2013, lover of soccer and supporter of refugees, but he opens up to Benedict about his own past. Meirelles does not shy away from the fact that Bergoglio was already a respected church figure in Argentina during the right-wing military coup of the 1970s, when students and leftists were routinely disappeared and tortured. His great shame is that he feels he should have done more against the regime, but instead compromised with it, hoping that such a move would protect the lives of his flock. Or was it out of simple fear? Even Benedict carries his own cross, admitting that he wants to retire and hasn’t heard the voice of God in a long time. Beyond religion, these moments are about the fragility of all individuals. 

Casting Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, two great screen veterans, makes it impossible to imagine this film with anyone else filling these roles. Hopkins, who has played men of overbearing presence so often, turns Benedict into a stern yet by the end likeable conservative. There’s empathy in the performance, creating an aged man who deep down has a kinder heart but is steadfast on his beliefs. Pryce projects a warm kindness. His Bergoglio is not without sin, but is human enough to accept it. He never judges Benedict, but is instead either to engage him. There is a moment as joyous as any other scene this year, when the two men sit down to watch a World Cup match between Argentina and Germany and Benedict can’t help but enjoy with restrained gusto.

Oddly enough “The Two Popes” is as engaging about the world today as any straight forward political film. Popes Benedict and Francis personify in this drama old values arguing with new ones, eventually finding some common ground and tolerance. Meirelles cannot hide his own convictions, and scenes of Francis preaching against poverty, denouncing inequality with Mercedes Sosa on the soundtrack leave little doubt who the director sympathizes with. But for the nonreligious or for viewers on both sides of the aisle, this small and enjoyable film becomes a conversation worth eavesdropping. 

The Two Popes” opens Nov. 27 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 20 on Netflix.