The Catholic Church doesn’t exactly project the most inviting image, so it’s hard to imagine Vatican City providing the appropriate backdrop for a buddy movie, much less one involving papal authority. Therein lies the inherent cleverness of “The Two Popes,” director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s sweet and surprisingly lighthearted depiction of the conversations between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) that culminated in Benedict’s unusual retirement and Bergoglio taking his place in 2013.
If that sounds unusual or even a touch absurd, well, yes: The endearing chemistry between these characters and the movie’s breezy tone often clashes with the subject at hand. That creates a peculiar dissonance whenever the movie attempts to dig deep on matters of faith, or the bleaker controversies involving the Catholic Church today. “The Two Popes” glosses over the sexual assault coverups that marred Benedict’s legacy, and in that respect, it mitigates a major aspect of this drama. But Pryce and Hopkins are so enjoyable to watch that “The Two Popes” manages to make an insular tale of religious values far more accessible than the material would suggest.
In the pantheon of recent movies about the pope, “The Two Popes” lands somewhere in between Nanni Moretti’s wistful satire “Habemus Papam” — about a pope unsure if he’s up for the job — and Wim Wenders’ hagiographic documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.” It has an authoritative feel even as it roots the complex backdrop in the rapport between its characters, who spend much of the movie roaming the countryside and the rooms of the Vatican as they develop into an appealing odd couple. Imagine Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” series with questions of faith instead of food. “City of God” director Meirelles is not known for comedy, but “The Two Popes” has more humorous intentions than it initially lets on.
But it layers that agenda onto the foundations of an immersive docudrama. If you missed the monumental circumstances behind the recent papal change-up, the movie does a sufficient job of bringing you up to speed. It begins in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II’s death, as the cardinals gather to vote on his replacement. In the wake of the late pope’s hardline conservative views, speculation circulates about potential candidates that might guide the church in new directions, as Meirelles assembles an absorbing montage of media coverage and rapid-fire “West Wing”-like strategy talk among candidates within the Vatican’s walls. While some push for Bergoglio to take the gig, drawn to his progressive views, the humble Argentinean begs off; Cardinal Ratzinger, however, mounts an aggressive campaign and quickly lands the gig.
But it doesn’t take long to move past that urgent opener. Meirelles depicts cardinals’ work routine with a playful touch, from the moment he captures Bergoglio whistling ABBA in the bathroom. While the camera swings through the dramatic scenery to capture the thousands of onlookers outside, it’s clear that “The Two Popes” aims to deconstruct the more intimate mysteries taking place beyond their limited view.
And so wistful Bergoglio returns to his humble life Buenos Aires, as the years tick by, and in 2012 decides to fly to Rome to request his retirement from the boss. But John Paul has other ideas, bringing Bergoglio to his country house as they match wits on a range of subjects. Roaming a garden overlooking the city, the pair argue through a range of theological issues that Bergoglio has criticized in the past, from his loose views on who can receive Communion to his open-mindedness toward homosexuality. “I disagree with everything you’ve said,” Benedict snaps, but they keep chatting anyway, with riveting exchanges on whether the church can even allow for evolving views. “You’re compromising,” the pope insists, and Bergoglio snaps back, “Change is compromise.”
In his best work since “The Constant Gardener,” Meirelles frames this intellectual showdown with dramatic angles and insinuative reaction shots. But “The Two Popes” truly belongs to its gifted actors, as they inject a degree of warmth into the proceedings, turning both men into sympathetic figures with profound convictions. Pryce, a Welsh actor who somehow manages to adopt a fairly convincing Argentinean accent, manages to inhabit the combination of assertiveness and amiability that has turned Pope Francis into such a galvanizing figure around the world. Hopkins, meanwhile, seems born to play the dyspeptic Benedict, as he cocks his eyebrows at every provocative suggestion from his ideological opposite.
McCarten’s script gives Benedict the benefit of the doubt, and lets him off too easily — even as he digs his heels in about his beliefs, he’s somehow well-reasoned to realize that the church needs to change if it wants to stay relevant. “We’re losing people,” Bergoglio says, and on that issue, the pope doesn’t fight back. Instead, he offers a way forward: Rather than accepting Bergoglio’s resignation, he urges him to take his place. The off-handed way in which the movie takes this sudden turn is the movie’s greatest punchline, and also its high point.
From there, “The Two Popes” stumbles into an overlong flashback surrounding Bergoglio’s early days during Argentina’s dictatorship, and his controversial role in the government at the time. These black-and-white sequences arrive late in the game, and run counter to the playful energy proceeding them, interrupting the central chemistry that has made the movie so engaging up until this point. It’s almost as though the filmmakers forgot the kind of genial story they wanted to tell, and reverted to the stodgy dramatic one instead. Still, once it comes back from that misstep, Bergoglio’s backstory helps explain his resistance to towing the party line. “I no longer wish to be a salesman,” he says, but that mentality is exactly what ends up making him the ideal candidate.
“The Two Popes” works overtime to sustain this dilemma in entertaining fashion, and for some people, that itself may represent a point of no return: The Catholic Church, after all, still isn’t all that hospitable toward gay people or abortion. And the movie shows mercy to Benedict for his sins — when he finally confesses his role in covering up the pedophilia scandal, the movie cuts away and blurs out the details with an orchestral swell, as if the specifics matter less than the end result. While this may help sustain the gentle tone, it’s also disingenuous.
Nevertheless, there’s an unquestionable appeal to the way the movie transforms a weighty and divisive topic into more approachable terms. “Your authority comes from the fact that you must suffer and die in the job,” Bergoglio insists, and given that gravitas, it’s a wonder to see how Meirelles manages to keep the material so nimble. Mileage will vary when it comes to watching Bergoglio teaching Benedict to tango while “Blackbird” plays on the soundtrack, or eating pizza as they debate the future of the church. The ability to humanize this insular world certainly makes it more accessible, but limits its ability to dig too deep. It’s a curious challenge to make the epicenter of religious authority into an approachable subject, and in that regard, the results were bound to be a mixed blessing.