The Two Popes review – Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce divine in papal faceoff

Hopkins’s Benedict XVI and Pryce’s Francis I make for a winning Vatican odd couple in this succession drama whose careful script ends not with a bang but a wimple

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce find some tremendous actorly form in this humorous, indulgent, lop-sidedly sentimental “Pope-off” which becomes a Pontiff bromance written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles.

It’s an entertaining if preposterous imagining of private meetings supposedly taking place a decade ago between Pope Benedict XVI, formerly the Austrian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) and the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce) as the Pope was pondering his sensational decision to retire, and before Bergoglio – the supposed liberal and critic of the incumbent’s conservative views – was to be elevated to the papacy as Francis I.

Bergoglio travels to the Pope’s summer palace outside Rome, wishing to submit in person his own request for a retirement; the Pope sharply rejects it, ostensibly because such a retirement would be seen as a criticism of his own leadership. But could it be, with infinite subtlety, His Holiness wishes to keep Bergoglio in post – because he wishes to prepare him for the big job?

Well, in the real world, Benedict XVI might in his heart have been displeased by the Vatican’s choice of successor. But the film interestingly – if perhaps not entirely intentionally – suggests that the future Francis I had precisely those conservative qualities of worldly compromise that Benedict would have found congenial.

Hopkins is very watchable as Benedict: severe, reactionary, with a piercing hooded-eyed gaze under his snowy white hair and the negligent, elderly hauteur that Hopkins brought recently to Shakespeare’s Lear (with Pryce as Cordelia and no other daughters to spoil the party.) The film is at its most successful when it is a duel between the two of them; it gets a bit soft and flabby when they warm up to each other and become an old-geezery Odd Couple who wind up watching the football together. I’m not sure the real-life Ratzinger was or is ready for that.

The film’s skates over a few things: the issue of child abuse is raised vehemently at the beginning but then dispensed with. There are long black-and-white flashbacks showing Bergoglio’s early life and his anguish at having compromised with Argentina’s brutal 70s junta regime when he should arguably have been defiant to the point of martyrdom. But there is no balancing “flashback” scene for Benedict, no scenes of his boyhood in the Hitler Youth - and he never answers the “Nazi” jibe that members of the general public are shown making. And his confession scene with Bergoglio is – exasperatingly – rendered inaudible, as if we the audience should not presume to listen in, though we are later given to understand it concerns his failure to act on child abuse evidence, and other instances of corruption. Yet the whole idea of bringing in the secular authorities is not countenanced.

But just as Graham Greene said his sense of humour allowed him to believe, so the witty, detailed performances of Hopkins and Pryce might allow you to believe in this movie. I loved the idea of Benedict switching to Latin when he has something disagreeable to say and his initial confrontation with Bergoglio in the garden is very good: the schoolmasterly disapproval, the hearing aid emitting its own continuous whine of contempt, the sudden batting away of a fly that has landed on His Holiness’s face. Later that face will soften, and it is a salutary shock at the end to see some real-life footage of the two men and to see Ratzinger’s very much more opaque demeanour. An enjoyable double-act – but not an infallible one.

• The Two Popes is released on 29 November 2019.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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