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Of Forgiveness And Duty: A Review of Netflix’s ‘The Two Popes’

An engrossing study of two individuals who ruled as Popes in our recent history, The Two Popes is wonderful, intelligent cinema

As directed by Fernando Meirelles, from a screenplay written by Antony McCarten (adapted from the play he wrote), The Two Popes on Netflix is an illuminating look into the recent history of our Catholic Church. At the center of the film’s narrative are the German Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins), and his eventual successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), seen in much of the film as Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. 

While much has been made of how the film conjectures, and imagines episodes that had the two interacting, the dialogue and conversations do reflect their public positions, and their diametrically opposed beliefs: Benedict very much a rigid conservative, and Francis a more flexible libertarian. Humanizing these two figures and creating the film is a supreme accomplishment, as it sheds light on a particularly thorny period of the Roman Catholic Church, and why it survives to this day. As the current Pope, and the first selected from outside Europe, Pope Francis has visited Manila, so his back story should be of special interest to Filipino audiences.
What is imaginatively created are the conversations that may have transpired between the two, while Pope Benedict was still heading the Church, and how these two polar opposites forged a tenuous friendship that exists to this day. At the heart of this film are a screenplay that treats the heavy and somber subject matter with intelligent lightness, shafts of humor and humanity, and two very terrific performances.

Hopkins imbues his Benedict with just the right amount of stiffness and formality at the outset, so as the film progresses and we witness Benedict’s arc, we are sympathetic to this man who admits to being fallible; but was only believing that his way had to be the right way to make the Church relevant and steadfast. Always well-intentioned, Benedict is far from being some villain in the piece. Rather, he’s a man asked to be God’s Representative here on Earth and trying his very best.

Pryce as the more dynamic and humanistic Bergoglio will immediately get more empathy and sympathy from the audience; but very smartly, McCarten employs flashbacks to a young Bergoglio in Argentina during the time of military oppression and the desaparecidos, and makes the case for how Bergoglio may not have done enough. By his own admission, in one conversation with Benedict, Bergoglio admits to being a rather controversial and divisive figure in his own country.

There are no outright heroes or villains here. If anything, the film does a wonderful job of humanizing the two figures. They talk about Beatles songs and Abbey Road, Bergoglio attempts to teach Benedict how to tango, and there’s a precious scene in the latter half, when the two emerge from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, and are engulfed by visiting tourists.

Historically, Pope Benedict stands as only the second Pope to have resigned and renounced the Papacy, citing failing health. It’s the transition to this decision and how it happened to be Bergoglio who would assume the position that lies at the center of this film. The wonderment is how we come to appreciate and have compassion for the two popes in the process of watching this film. Kudos to Netflix for bankrolling this film that most major studios would have shied away from.

Lead photos from Netflix.