Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are both a delight in The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God and The Constant Gardener) and written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody).
It’s 2005 and the death of Pope John Paul II has led to the rise of Pope Benedict XVI, a more conservative Catholic. Fast forward seven years, and the Catholic Church has been riddled with scandal – Pope Benedict’s assistant has leaked several confidential papers to the press. When his complete opposite, Cardinal Mario Bergoglio, puts in a request for retirement, Pope Benedict refuses and invites Bergoglio to Rome where they debate views on faith, the future of the Church, and learn to accept their pasts.
We often forget celebrities are as human as we are, at least as far as I know, and no matter how important their title, everyone needs time to relax. I believe this idea leads into my favorite aspect of The Two Popes, the way it humanizes and brings down to earth two such large figures. In the film, we watch the two popes share a pizza, watch TV, and follow the 2014 World Cup between their respective home countries, Germany and Argentina.
This characteristic of the film especially applies to Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Cardinal Bergoglio, who would later become the Pope Francis we all know and love. The tango-dancing pope is seen walking the streets, taking public transport, making his own reservations, and when he is first introduced, he is humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. By neglecting luxury and remaining humble, he is depicted as the bridge between the common folk that the mighty Catholic Church needs to stay alive, and Pryce embodies this in his performance.
Some were disappointed not to see Adam Sandler nominated for best actor in a leading role at this year’s Oscars, and so was I, but after seeing The Two Popes I am able to understand Pryce’s nomination and even support it. Him, and Anthony Hopkins too, make acting look so effortless and their performances help buoy the script.
Speaking of Sir Anthony Hopkins, he is as you’d expect…fantastic. In his more dramatic moments, such as when Pope Benedict admits he no longer hears God’s voice or feels his presence, his delivery is of absolute command and impact. He also supplies the film with a lot of its humor, with quips such as “It’s a German joke, it doesn’t have to be funny,” or when referring to the pacemaker his doctor gave him, “My doctor gave it to me. He said, ‘you are in good shape for 86, but very bad shape for a human being.”
The chemistry between Pryce and Hopkins is undeniable as The Two Popes is truly an actor’s film; their (Popes Benedict and Francis) verbal sparring matches are made interesting by the craft of the actors. If Pryce was nominated for lead, then Hopkins had to be nominated for supporting – either both were to receive nominations or none at all.
The Two Popes was originally written by Anthony McCarten as a play, The Pope, which debuted in 2019 at the Royal & Derngate Theatre. The film’s dialogue-driven script and limited, yet beautifully designed, set pieces are evidence of this.
However, one of The Two Popes’ greater weaknesses for me stems as a result of its play-based nature. When handling Pope Francis’ history, specifically his collaboration with the brutal regime that took over Argentina in 1976, the film relies on flashbacks. I was so engrossed in Pryce and Hopkins’ performances, that whenever the movie cut to a different actor in a different era, my interest was reduced. Since flashbacks aren’t as easily constructed on stage versus on screen, the exposition is already didactic as it is, and despite added cinematic flare in the film adaptation, remains so.
A story about two opposing sides finding common ground that is excellently acted, The Two Popes is a film that should resonate even with those without a faith. 8.5/10
 “The Two Popes.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Popes.