One of the many fictionalized true stories this awards season is Fernando Meirelles’ festival crowdpleaser “The Two Popes,” which Oscar-whisperer Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody, “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour”) adapted from his play. He pitched the movie to Netflix executives who instantly put into development his dramatization of the behind-the-scenes verbal swordplay at a 2012 meeting (which took place) between conservative German Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and humanistic Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) just before Benedict shocked the world by stepping down in February, 2013.
Benedict refuses to accept Bergoglio’s resignation, because he wants him to replace him as Pope. Brazilian Oscar-winner Meirelles (“City of God”) directs this entertaining sparring match between two wily Welsh thespians, Hopkins and Pryce, with a light touch. The director and his usual cinematographer César Charlone shot the film in close-up with handheld cameras that capture what the men are thinking as they engage in fierce debate about the future of the Catholic Church.
“This story of two guys on different sides who find common ground is timely,” said producer Dan Lin, who sent McCarten’s unproduced play to Meirelles. (He has since mounted a new version of the play off-Broadway.) “He fell in love with it. It’s a movie about friendship. It promotes conversation and listening to the other side and talking things out.”
After Scott Stuber joined Netflix, he greenlit the intimate movie with a $40 million budget to cover two far-flung exotic locations with scale and scope: Argentina and Italy. Like Peter Morgan’s “The Queen,” “The Crown,” or “Frost/Nixon,” this movie takes you behind the scenes where you are usually not allowed to go. When the Vatican didn’t allow the production to film inside, Meirelles built replicas of the Vatican interiors and the Sistine Chapel at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios.
In a video interview with IndieWire above, Pryce admitted that he had long admired his fellow Welshman Hopkins; as they got to know each other better, their camaraderie grew, just like their characters. Bergoglio was in the awe of the Pope, even as he disagreed with many of his hard-held ideas. “I was listening all the time,” Pryce said.
But, as Meirelles noted, the two men approached their acting in different ways that worked well on camera: the rational Hopkins methodically prepared the beats of his performance months ahead, while Pryce was far more internal and intuitive. “You were jazz,” said Meirelles to Pryce. “He was classical.” And in the movie, Benedict drinks Fanta, watches “Kommissar Rex,” and plays the piano, while Francis loves soccer and the tango. “We love discovering that religious leaders are just as human as you and me,” said Lin.