The Two Popes Review: Valediction & Remembrance Grumpy Old Men

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Summary

Pryce is so good in The Two Popes, capturing a beloved world figure with undeniable grace and surprising heft. It’s smart, well-acted, and features some of the snappiest dialogue you’ll hear this year.

There might be more exciting ways to spend two hours and those hard-earned shingles than watching two grumpy old men debate the true nature of their faith. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is stubborn, stuck in the traditional ways, always the politician, conservative, reactionary, while keeping people at arm’s length. The other, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is liberal, warm, even vibrant despite his age, someone who you can have a beer with while never afraid to get his hands dirty while welcoming his church members with a friendly embrace. When watching The Two Popes you may think to yourself that you are watching a film that’s a throwback; where two wise men contesting their ideals and principles, which spark great debate, was once considered exciting. Studios generally don’t make them like this anymore. Just be grateful the studios decided not to cast The Rock and Jason Momoa in order to grab your attention.

The Two Popes was directed by City of God maestro Fernando Meirelles and it’s easily his best effort since The Constant Gardener. It’s striking how his eye catches some of the poverty-stricken streets in Pope Francis’s Argentina then captures the lush life of Pope Benedict’s European home garden in a way that’s authentic. He has never had the star power and talent like this to fill his backdrops before. Jonathan Pryce is so good here in The Two Popes, capturing a beloved world figure with undeniable grace and surprising heft; he simply makes you smile whenever he pops onto the screen and then floors you with the tearful remembrance of his past sins. In all honesty, this may buy Pryce’s finest performance. On the flip side of that coin, you have a thankless, but by definition harder role of Pope Benedict; here’s a man who was never truly embraced by the Catholic followers, and Hopkins played the resentful, stubborn curmudgeon beautifully.

The script by Anthony McCarten is unexpected, a double-edged sword in a way, and takes you places that you did not anticipate. The weighty themes of faith, valediction, and progressing towards institutionalized religions are meaty subjects that have more flesh on its bone than a tomahawk steak. Each man is given equal treatment and establishes their fully developed personalities. Then we get to the best part of the film, Francis’s backstory about his time in Argentina playing the role of Schindler and creating Beegoglio’s list, if you will. As a young man (wonderfully done by Focus actor Juan Minujin) he played both sides as he tried to keep the peace and help his fellow men and women of faith in the process, with haunting results. He began hiding priests who were being murdered by military government officials in the midst of a civil war.

Strangely, the film leaves that as the only backstory and we don’t get a look at what made Pope Benedict tick. Here is a German man who was deemed a Nazi by the public, unloved, never embraced, but that had the wisdom to see this organization needed to head in a different direction to regain their lost flock. The void left here made me think the script may have been originally written as a biopic for every Catholic congregant’s sweetheart and Hopkins’s role was enlarged when he took an interest in the picture. This caused one of the very few issues I have with the uneven take it has with Pope Benedict’s backstory.

Those, though, are minor quibbles I have for Meirelle’s film. The Two Popes is smart, exceptionally well-acted, and features some of the snappiest dialogue you’ll hear this year. It’s very well done and offers so much to feast on you might find yourself more interested in the fascinating Papal Election or hunger for a feature-length film of Pope Francis’s role in Argentina’s The Dirty War. It’s a satisfying experience and leaves a glow like a beautiful spring day after a Sunday mass.


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M.N. Miller

M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.

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