The Two Popes

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More than anything else The Two Popes (2019) is a stunning late career showcase for actors Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. A majority of films based upon stage plays, in this case a show of the same title written by Anthony McCarten, are more centered on performance than on the image. The inherent differences between the mediums of stage and screen are responsible for this. Which isn’t to say that The Two Popes isn’t entertaining or even moving. It’s just not as cinematic as director Fernando Meirelles’ other films.

Few things about McCarten’s stage play have changed in his adapting it for the screen. The Two Popes still focuses on a handful of prolonged interactions between Pope Francis (Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) during the Vati-Leaks scandal while the former was a Cardinal. The power of these two actors transcends the material, rending these scenes between the two compulsory viewing. The nuance, the humanity and emotional fragility subtly fill their faces and, in turn, the screen with a sense of authenticity and life.

Fernando Meirelles keeps his camera, quite wisely, close to his two powerhouses. The blocking, ever reflecting the success and failures of their debates, tends to occur in medium shot while almost all of the wide shots are relegated to establishing space. This strategy has the accumulative effect of establishing intimacy not just between the two leads, but also the viewer. Fernando Meirelles knows that the best way that a film can draw a viewer into a piece for the stage is to bring that viewer right on up into the action.

Ironically the weakest parts of The Two Popes are the overtly showy flashbacks. Pryce narrates these black and white sequences at front and back as a kind of transition from Argentina of the past to Rome of the present. This, however, is redundant since Pryce is doing little more than telling the spectator what they’re seeing. Without the voice over though these flashbacks would feel totally out of place and completely disruptive to the dramatic flow of Pryce’s scenes with Hopkins. As they are in the film, these sequences feel like padding. Or perhaps, even worse, these scenes indicate Fernando Meirelles’ and Anthony McCarten’s distrust of the viewers’ ability to be moved by these recollections if the camera just stayed on Pryce in dialogue with Hopkins.

Superficially The Two Popes is a delightful little film about unlikely friendships. By avoiding going in depth with some of the more controversial issues facing the Catholic church The Two Popes does seem to lose some of its agency. It’s Fernando Meirelles’ love letter to Pope Francis and I think viewers must accept it as such, for better and for worse.