Movie review: Humor, stellar performances make 'The Two Popes' a heavenly treat

  • Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) verbally jousts with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) in "The Two Popes."

    Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) verbally jousts with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) in "The Two Popes." Courtesy of Netflix

Updated 12/5/2019 10:42 AM

"The Two Popes" -- ★ ★ ★

A liberal cardinal and conservative pope walk into a bar and ...


Oh, wait.

That's actually the Sistine Chapel, magnificently and meticulously recreated for one of many spectacular sets adorning Fernando Meirelles' smart and sassy "inspired-by-true-events" (read: mostly made up) historical drama "The Two Popes."

But it might as well be a bar, insomuch as Anthony McCarten's switchblade-sharp screenplay constantly threatens to break into a comically theological variation on 1981's "My Dinner With Andre."

"The Two Popes" chronicles several meetings starting in 2005 between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who eventually becomes his successor Pope Francis.

The plot ­-- a slender excuse for McCarten to employ the same insightful, engaging dialogue that propelled his impressive biopics "The Theory of Everything," "Darkest Hour" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- has Cardinal Bergoglio trying to retire from the clergy, only to be constantly blocked and vexed by the Pope.

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It will ruin nothing to reveal that Benedict intends to become the first pontiff to resign in more than six centuries, and he believes a populist cardinal such as Bergoglio would be his ideal successor, despite being way too progressive.

Not knowing the bigger plan, Bergoglio begs the arch-conservative pontiff ­(critics refer to him as a "Nazi" because of his German past) ­to allow the church to change with the times.

"Change means compromise!" Benedict bitterly barks.

"Change is life!" Bergoglio blithely barks back.

Meirelles, a Brazilian filmmaker known for the critically acclaimed "City of God," directs "The Two Popes" with cinematic heft and density, elevating the material far above the chamber play it started out to be in 2017.

But the success of this movie falls upon the two actors breathing life into McCarten's words.

And do they breathe.

Anthony Hopkins plays Benedict with world weariness weighing on his words, a man tired of the job in the wake of the global child abuse scandal, mostly hinted at, never addressed.


Jonathan Pryce (Glenn Close's egotistical spouse in 2017's "The Wife") provides Bergoglio with an incredible lightness, despite a dark political past awkwardly inserted later in the film as flashbacks, starring actor Juan Minujín as the younger Bergoglio.

These two seasoned pros work the camera with precision empathy, impressively speaking in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Latin, until they decide on English, despite Benedict's dislike of that language.

"Too many exceptions to the rules," he grouses.

You don't need to be Catholic to appreciate the political and emotional nuances of "The Two Popes."

Clashing ideologies have long made for some of the best dramatic exchanges on stage, screen and TV.

In fact, the 2018 documentary "RBG" reveals how liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg often traded glib, jovial chats with arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

So, wonderfully wrought reposts like those in "The Two Popes" could happen ­-- if we all had our own personal Aaron Sorkins around to write them.

• • •

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujín

Directed by: Fernando Meirelles

Other: A Netflix release. Rated PG-13 for violent imagery. In English, Spanish, Italian, French Portuguese, German and Latin with subtitles. At the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. 125 minutes

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