When one is anticipating an indepth double portrait of two great figures of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, a buddy-comedy in the vein of The Odd Couple should not come to mind.
However, it is precisely within the witty exchanges and confrontation of differences, so common to the genre, that Netflix’s The Two Popes helps audiences truly understand who these men are and what has contributed to their differing views on the Church.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and based on a stage play by screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour), the film uses a series of supposed meetings in 2012 between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) as a brilliant platform to delve deep into the heart of these two personalities and their polarising pontificates.
Audiences are first introduced to this rivalry during the 2005 conclave and election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope where, through exposition and cleverly crafted conversations amongst cardinals, personal and theological differences are clearly established.
Their mutual disdain is further revealed as the conservative Pope Benedict XVI questions Bergoglio’s liberal views and unconventional demeanour throughout their first tense encounter at Casa Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.
With every consecutive meeting, the two learn more about the person behind the perspective and ultimately find a friend where there once was a foe.
While Pope and Cardinal make their way toward mutual ground, audiences are brought along with them as flashbacks and news footage help give a deeper insight into the circumstances that made the men behind the mitre.
From the score to the cinematography, every aspect of this film is intended to highlight the differences between these two figures by marrying both the traditional with the liberal.
Though playing ABBA’s Dancing Queen over the top of scenes of Cardinals processing into the Sistine Chapel may seem an odd choice, the fact that it works strengthens the overarching idea that despite their differences these two popes, and all faithful Catholics, can work together.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as well for the cinematographers whose constant switching between a traditional and a modern shaky-cam style of filming distract from the drama on screen.
At times, Bergoglio’s frequent acts of humility and displays of simplicity are so unsubtle that it risks turning the film into a pedestal for Pope Francis and his progressive persona.
However, just as the love affair becomes all too apparent, the writers shift the focus back onto both figures with some witty dialogue delivered charmingly by Hopkins as the German Pontiff.
Nevertheless, it is clear, in the lack of attention given to Pope Benedict’s past and pontificate that Meirellles wishes us to side with Bergoglio.
Hopkins and Pryce are truly remarkable in their role as Benedict and Bergoglio, transforming themselves into the Pontiffs by mastering their mannerisms, looks and laugh.
These are the actor’s best performances in years and their portrayal of these papal figures, particularly when they are together, will keep you captivated until the very end.
Rated M and said to be inspired by true events, The Two Popes is currently showing in selective theatres across Australia and will be released on Netflix on 20 December.