A biopic is never easy to pull off, as the filmmaker is putting his or herself under incredible pressure to be truthful. You have the historians watching closely, as well as the friends and relatives of those you’re depicting. So while it’s challenging at the best of times, making a biopic about currently living people is like painting a target on your face. With that in mind, Director Fernando Meirelles has taken the reigns of The Two Popes (2019), a comedy-drama film inspired by the meeting between Pope Francis (who at the time was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) and ex-Pope Benedict XVI. Considering how important the Papacy is to many people, Meirelles has set himself the ultimate challenge with this film. However, with work such as City of God (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005) in his resume, he is more than up to the task.
Following the events of the Vatican Leaks Scandal, Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) has become a controversial public figure. Pope Benedict invites popular Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) to the Vatican, where the pair get to know each other. During their meeting, they discuss things like soccer, pizza and their difference of opinion in how to best represent the Christian faith. Pope Benedict has a conservative view of things, whereas Cardinal Bergoglio has a progressive view. The conversation remains pretty civilised and friendly, despite hitting very serious topics, anecdotes and the various skeletons in the closet.
What jumps out right away is how much Meirelles humanises both Popes. Representatives of religion are usually characterised as emotionless and wise monks. Meirelles smartly throws that out the window, portraying both men as regular people with likes, dislikes, wants, desires and needs. Letting us see what kind of music they like, what kind of sports they are into and how they interact with people allows us to get an understanding of each character. Regardless of who’s ideas speak to your beliefs, it’s impossible to deny that both men are characterised so richly that you almost feel like you know them. The level of detail in the humanisation is so precise that you immediately know who is going to fall on which side of every talking point and why.
Happily, the talking points brought up in the narrative are all relevant and necessary for discussion. Anthony McCarten’s script leaves no stone unturned, ensuring that issues such as same-sex marriage, paedophile priests and corruption are all covered. While it’s quite clear how much respect Meirelles has for the clergy, he doesn’t shy away from mentioning the elephants in the room. From moment to moment you can feel Meirelles showing varying levels of sympathy for each side of the debate, but he doesn’t demonise either. The script lists pros and cons and remains non-confrontational, allowing the viewer to make their own decision. However, remaining somewhat neutral is a double edged blade, as you can feel Meirelles actually wants to take a hard stance on the issues raised. While it’s nice to leave things to interpretation, it does feel like it’s pulling it’s punches at times.
Thankfully, the character drama holds nothing back. Long stretches of the narrative play non-linearly, showing us the roads these men took to get where they are. This is the dramatic meat of the film with the most complex storytelling. Meirelles plays with the tone and genre in these sections, shifting from being a poetic character study to a tragic thriller. Meirelles uses all the tricks he learnt in his earlier work, crafting an engrossing and nail-biting mini-story right in the middle of the film. These sequences greatly enhance the investment in the main story and make the overall piece much more interesting. The power of this subplot is so great that you almost wonder why the entire film wasn’t just about that.
In addition to the somewhat confused narrative focus, it appears to also juggle a few too many visual styles. It jumps from sweeping vitas to shaky-cam to motivated camerawork with such high frequency that it sometimes feels random. for a film about two men having a chat, a non-specific visual style can be distracting. Granted, it’s not a deal-breaker as the cinematography by César Charlone is classy and artful. From shot to shot, Charlone creates moments that could be framed on a wall alongside the art in the Vatican. Whether it’s a landscape or a living room, you will need a moment or two to take it all in. The randomness of the cinematography stands out mostly when it doesn’t compliment the tone of the scene.
For such tonally dramatic content, there is plenty of comedy. That comedy comes from the infectious chemistry between the two leads. Jonathan Pryce is loveable as Bergoglio and is completely believable as a popular man of the people. Anthony Hopkins as Benedict is unsurprisingly imposing yet gentle, which is exactly what Hopkins does better than anyone. Their dialogue and interplay successfully carries the narrative, shouldering all the heavy ideas with a light sense of humour when appropriate. Their work is even more impressive considering that large chunks of the dialogue have to be spoken in a mix of Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. I couldn’t say if they speak with the appropriate accent (and an argument could be made that the roles should have gone to Spanish and German performers) but their work is convincing to the untrained ear.
Considering how many ways a biopic like The Two Popes could have gone wrong, it’s a minor miracle it turned out mostly well. Despite losing focus at times, Meirelles is a respectful filmmaker and the respect he feels comes across clearly on screen. With the aid of two leads who never disappoint, The Two Popes is well worth the watch. It is a layered work which fairly discusses nearly every important issue, even though it could have hit a lot harder than it did.
Best way to watch it: With Grandma. She’ll love it.